Demonstrations flare across Syria

Anti-government protesters take to the streets in several major cities and in mainly Kurdish towns.

    Zeina Khodr reports on a less bloody Friday in Syria.

    Thousands of people have taken to the streets across Syria for another day of anti-government protests.

    The first rallies on Friday erupted in the country's mainly Kurdish northeast, where protesters demanded an end to military actions that activists say have killed hundreds of protesters.

    Demonstrators chanting "Syria for all its sons," "Long live independent, free Syria," and "The Syrian people are one," rallied after noon prayers in towns including Qamishli, Amouda, Ras al-Ain and Derbassieh.

    Organisers estimated 3,500 people, mainly Kurds, protested in Amouda and up to 4,000 marched in Qamishli, including Arabs and members of Syria’s Christian Assyrian sect.

    "The Kurds are now expanding their participation in demonstrations calling for freedom in the country, along with other fellow Syrians. The army’s intervention is condemned," Ismail Hami, secretary-general of the Kurdish Yakiti Party, told Al Jazeera.

    "This national army is only there to protect the borders and not to open fire on citizens."

    Protests were also held in the central cities of Homs and Hama and in the Damascus district of Midan.

    Homs was under full military lockdown on Friday, with the army controlling all roads leading in. Tanks and secret police were deployed to every major square, a witness told Al Jazeera.

    Young people were routinely being stopped and questioned with many arrested, the witness said, while telephone communications were limited, but not fully cut.

    The flashpoint areas of Bab Sabaa, Bab Dreib, Bab Amr and Bab Tadmor, where security forces opened fire on protesters in previous weeks, had hundreds of plain clothes security around them, the witness said.

    Syrian soldiers rolled into other key cities in tanks and set up sand barriers topped with machine guns, the Associated Press reported earlier.

    Troops 'will not fire'

    Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, reportedly ordered troops not to fire on pro-democracy demonstrators ahead of Friday's rallies.

    Louay Hussein, a Syrian political activist, said Assad's adviser Bouthaina Shaaban had told him in a phone call on Thursday that "definitive presidential orders have been issued not to shoot demonstrators and whoever violates this bears full responsibility," according to Reuters.

    Live Blog Syria

    Hussein was among four opposition figures who saw Shaaban earlier this month and presented demands that included an end to violent repression of protesters and the introduction of political reform in the country, ruled by the Assad family since 1970.

    "I hope we will see [no firing at demonstrators] tomorrow. I still call for non-violent form of any protest regardless of the response of the security apparatus," Hussein said on Thursday.

    The meetings were the first between the opposition and senior officials since demonstrations calling for political freedom and an end to corruption erupted in the southern city of Deraa on March 18.

    Shaaban made a similar statement to the one on Thursday at the beginning of the demonstrations in March.

    Authorities have since blamed most of the violence on "armed terrorist groups backed by Islamists and foreign agitators".

    Broadening the crackdown

    Friday - the main congregated day of prayer for Muslims - offers the only chance for Syrians to assemble in large numbers, making it easier to hold demonstrations. This Friday will be an important test after the government said it had largely put down the unrest.

    The Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists said troops had killed 700 people, rounded up thousands and indiscriminately shelled towns during the protests.

    Tanks advanced in the southern towns of Dael, Tafas, Jassem and al-Harah on Thursday, broadening a crackdown before Friday.

    In Deraa, a witness, who declined to be named, said the first significant demonstration since tanks shelled the city's old quarter into submission two weeks ago, erupted on Thursday.

    Eighteen people were reportedly killed in shelling by tanks in residential areas across the country on Wednesday.

    Ammar Qurabi, head of Syria's National Organisation for Human Rights, said 13 people had been killed in the southern village of al-Harah.

    Tanks also shelled a residential district in Homs killing at least five people, a rights campaigner in the city said. A sixth person was killed by a sniper.

    Washington and its European allies have been criticised for a tepid response to the violence in Syria, in contrast with Libya where they are carrying out a bombing campaign they say will not end until leader Muammar Gaddafi is driven from power.

    Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, said Washington and its allies would hold Assad's government to account for "brutal reprisals" against protesters and might tighten sanctions, but she stopped short of saying Assad should leave power.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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