Protests erupt throughout Syria despite Assad's gestures

By REUTERS
April 15, 2011 15:50

Syrian president's move to free political prisoners, grant citizenship to Kurds, sack government are met with more protests.

4 minute read.



Syrian Kurds protest in Qamishli

Syrian Kurds protest in Qamishli 311 (R). (photo credit: Reuters)

AMMAN - Thousands of protesters took to the streets across Syria on Friday despite concessions offered by Syrian President Bashar Assad in an attempt to placate a month-long wave of unrest challenging his 11-year rule.

Shouting "God, Syria, Freedom," protesters repeated the same demand for democratic reform and freedoms across many cities.

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On Thursday Assad unveiled a new government, which has little power in the one-party ruled country, and ordered the release of detainees, a move one human rights lawyer said represented a "drop in the ocean" compared to the thousands of political prisoners still held.

But the concessions did not appear to satisfy protesters, who gathered in even larger numbers on the Muslim day of prayer.

Rights activists reported protests in the city of Deir al-Zor near the Iraqi border, the restive coastal city of Banias and in the southern city of Deraa, where protesters first demonstrated against the detention of teenagers who had scrawled graffiti inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

"Demonstrations came out from every mosque in the city, including the Omari mosque... The number of people is above 10,000 protesters so far," an activist said by phone from Deraa.

The protest movement against Assad's repressive rule has steadily gained momentum since it began four weeks ago.

Rights groups say at least 200 people have been killed since the protests started. Authorities blame "armed groups" for stirring up unrest at the bidding of outside players, including Lebanon and Islamist groups.

Syrian state television reported what it said were several peaceful demonstrations, including at Deraa and Deir al-Zor, where it reported two small processions of less than 50 people.

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About 250 people called for freedom in the capital Damascus' Barzeh district in front of the Salam mosque, an activist said. Emergency law in force since the Baath Party swept to power in a coup in 1963 bans public gatherings of more than five people.

The biggest gatherings -- and the most bloody -- have been after Friday prayers. Witnesses say security forces fire routinely at protesters, who first called for more freedom but increased their demands to "the downfall of the regime" as the crackdown, which includes mass arrests, grew.

The protests, once unthinkable in the tightly-controlled country known for its heavy-handed security apparatus, have damaged the prestige of Assad, who took power when his father died in 2000 after ruling Syria for 30 years.

'This is not Hama'

There are sectarian overtones to the tensions arising from the protests. Rights campaigners said Alawite irregulars, loyal to Assad and known as "al-shabbiha", killed four people in the coastal city of Banias and also quelled protests elsewhere.

Assad has said his country -- which is at the heart of the Middle East conflict -- was the target of a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife.

His father used similar language when he crushed a leftist and Islamist challenge to his iron rule in the 1980s.

"This is not 1982 Hama. The uprising is not confined to a single area," a leading opposition figure said, referring to an attack by Hafez Assad's forces to crush an armed revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama that killed up to 30,000 people.

Assad has tried to face down the protests, which have spread from Deraa to the Mediterranean coast, the Kurdish east and central Homs province.

He has used force, promises of reform, including a salary increase for public workers, a reconsideration of the emergency rule that has been in place for 48 years and concessions to minority Kurds and conservative Muslims.

But his decision last Thursday to grant citizenship to tens of thousands of stateless Kurds, as well as announcements about lifting a ban on veiled teachers and closing Syria's sole casino, failed to prevent protests erupting the next day.

Rights campaigners say the protests have been inspired by intensifying repression over the last several years and by uprisings which toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia and challenged others from North Africa to the Gulf.

Demonstrators have been seeking an end to emergency law, which has banned all opposition and used to justify arbitrary arrests. A panel drafting anti-terrorism legislation to replace emergency law is expected to complete its work by April 25.

Critics say the new law will probably grant the state much of the same powers contained in the current legislation.


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