Death toll in Syria protests rises to 113

ByOREN KESSLER
April 24, 2011 00:42

Video shows troops randomly firing at protesters; Obama slams ‘outrageous’ crackdown, accuses Assad of seeking aid from Tehran

Syrian protesters in Deraa hoisting large flag

Syrian protesters in Deraa hoisting large flag 311 (R). (photo credit:REUTERS)

Anti-government protesters endured their bloodiest weekend in Syria’s five-week old uprising, as rights groups said at least 113 people had been killed in rallies nationwide.

The violence came amid growing international condemnation of President Bashar Assad’s crackdown and the resignation of two lawmakers and a religious leader in the southern region where demonstrations first broke out.

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At least 13 civilians were killed on Saturday during funerals in Damascus and the southern village of Izra’a, the Syrian human rights organization Sawasiah told Reuters.

The funerals were being held for demonstrators killed the day before, a day dubbed “Great Friday” by protest organizers, when at least 100 people were killed in a crackdown the US administration denounced as “outrageous.”


Friday’s protests went ahead despite Assad’s decision last week to lift the country’s hated emergency law, in place since the Ba’ath Party seized power 48 years ago. The party is dominated by Alawites, members of Assad’s minority sect that controls Syria’s militarypolitical and commercial life.

Prof. Ya’acov Bar-Simantov of the Hebrew University said Assad and his partners in government were playing a double game.

“On the one hand, they announce the lifting of the emergency law; and on the other, they proclaim new laws against demonstrations. So if they’re still banning protests, what’s the significance of this move?” he asked.

Bar-Simantov wrote his 1983 doctoral dissertation on the Syrian regime’s habit of “externalizing” internal threats, usually attributing them to Israel, and says little has changed today.

“Even today, the regime attributes the unrest to Israel, or to Al-Jazeera, but no one takes it seriously anymore.”

Bar-Simantov said that for the ruling regime, far more is at stake than political survival.

“The Assad regime is something much larger – it’s actually the Alawite sect itself. It’s a small community, but it won’t easily agree to relinquish its control over politics, the army and economy,” he said, adding that Assad may replaced by another member of the ruling clique in an attempt to mollify protesters without the Alawites relinquishing power.

But such a move would be unlikely to satisfy increasingly emboldened demonstrators, he added.

Friday was by far the bloodiest day in over a month of demonstrations to demand political freedoms and an end to corruption, with at least 100 people killed, two activists said. The day’s violence – in areas stretching from the port city of Latakia to Homs, Hama, Damascus and the southern village of Izra’a – brings the death toll to more than 300, according to activists, since unrest broke out on March 18 in Deraa.

Damascus remained tense on Saturday and many people stayed indoors, one activist in Damascus said.

Two Syrian lawmakers, both from Deraa, told Al-Jazeera television they were resigning from parliament in protest at the killing of demonstrators.

Theirs were the first resignations from within Assad’s regime.

“Security solutions do not work,” said one of the lawmakers, Khalil al- Rifaei.

Their resignation was followed by that of the government-appointed mufti, or Muslim preacher, for Deraa.

“Being assigned to give fatwas, I submit my resignation as a result of the fall of victims and martyrs by police fire,” Rezq Abdulrahman Abazeid told Al-Jazeera. “When they announce at high levels that [protesters] will not be shot at, we see that the truth on the ground is different.”

A statement by the Local Coordination Committees, a grouping of activists coordinating protests, said the end of emergency law was meaningless without the release of thousands of political prisoners – most being held without trial – and the dismantling of the security apparatus.

In their first joint statement since the protests erupted last month, activists said the abolition of the Ba’ath Party’s monopoly on power and the establishment of a democratic political system would be central to ending repression in Syria.

With most foreign journalists having been expelled or kept out of Syria, the bulk of reporting and video has been through social media sites.

Amateur footage posted on Friday seemed to show protesters in the southwestern town of Azra telling soldiers: “You’re our brothers,” before troops opened fire from short range.

A clip posted on Saturday showed gunmen in the Damascus suburb of Barzeh riding in the back of white pickup trucks while firing randomly and repeatedly at funeral marchers.

Al-Jazeera correspondent Cal Perry wrote on his Twitter feed on Saturday: “Outside Izra’a, I witnessed a funeral march. Cut down by gunfire.

Directly into crowd. Horrible.”

Later, he tweeted: “It was one of the most horrible things I have ever seen. So many people must have been killed.”

Earlier in the day, Perry wrote that after four weeks in the country, he had been ordered by authorities to leave.

The European Union, Russia, Greece, Germany and France on Saturday joined the United States in condemning Assad’s crackdown.

France’s Foreign Ministry said Paris was “deeply concerned.”

“Syrian authorities must give up the use of violence against their citizens.

We again call on them to commit without delay to an inclusive political dialogue and to achieve the reforms legitimately demanded by the Syrian people,” the ministry said.

US President Barack Obama condemned Friday’s violence and accused Assad of seeking help from Iran.

“This outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end now,” Obama said in a statement.

“Instead of listening to their own people, President Assad is blaming outsiders while seeking Iranian assistance in repressing Syria’s citizens.”

A Syrian government source said in a statement published in official state media that Obama’s statement “was not based on objective vision.”

Obama has come under criticism for failing to respond forcefully and quickly to the mounting humanitarian toll.

“President Obama should immediately recall the ambassador that he sent to Syria and move to invoke additional economic sanctions,” Republican presidential hopeful and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty said in a statement on Friday.

“Moreover, he should instruct the US ambassador to the UN to call a special meeting of the Security Council to condemn the Syrian regime’s murderous conduct.”

The same day, The Washington Post editorialized: “The administration has sat on its hands despite the fact that the Assad regime is one of the most implacable US adversaries in the Middle East. It is Iran’s closest ally; it supplies Iranian weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip for use against Israel.

“The administration, which made the ‘engagement’ of Syria a key part of its Middle East policy, still clings to the belief that Assad could be part of a Middle East peace process, and it would rather not trade ‘a known quantity in Assad for an unknown future.’

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