10,000 Syrians reportedly in custody as death toll hits 750

At least 19 killed across country; ex-mediator says Assad’s ouster would harm Israel; Syria’s first lady reportedly in UK.

By OREN KESSLER
May 12, 2011 00:57
Ibrahim Soliman

Ibrahim Soliman 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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At least 10,000 protesters have been detained across Syria over the past few days in a mass arrest campaign the government hopes will help stem an uprising poised to enter its third month.

Syrian tanks shelled residential districts in two towns on Wednesday and at least 19 people were killed across the country, rights campaigners said.

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It was one of the bloodiest days apart from the main Friday protest days, as President Bashar Assad’s regime intensifies its campaign to quell unrest in Homs, a city emerging as the country’s most populous center of defiance. Most of the violence occurred in the southern Deraa province, where the unrest first erupted on March 18.

Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, said 13 people were killed in the town of Harra, about 60 kilometers northwest of Deraa city.

Most were killed when tanks shelled four houses. Two people – a child and a nurse – died in gunfire, he said.

Tanks also shelled a residential district in Homs, Syria’s third largest city, and at least five people were killed, a rights campaigner in the city said. A sixth person was killed by a sniper shot to the head as he stood in front of his house.

“The security forces are terrorizing urban centers,” said Najati Tayara, the activist in Homs.

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There was no immediate comment from Syrian authorities, who have banned most international media from the country, making it difficult to verify accounts of events.

As Western criticism of the crackdown grows, a former mediator between Syria and Israel said Jerusalem would benefit from Assad staying in power, and the embattled president must be given a chance to show he has learned from his mistakes.

“It’s in the interest of Israel and the entire world that Bashar stay in power, because we don’t know what might replace him. There were many, many mistakes made, but these mistakes can be corrected,” said Ibrahim Soliman, a Syrian-American businessman who mediated secret, unofficial negotiations between the countries from 2004 to 2006.

By phone from the US, Soliman said the crackdown was being conducted by corrupt officials who must be purged from the Syrian government.

Assad “must be given a chance to get rid of these corrupt people, and I think he will. But he must be given a chance,” Soliman said.

The former mediator said he didn’t expect Syria to descend into a Libya-style stalemate in which neither side had the upper hand.

“If they continue what they’re doing, it’ll mean the destruction of their way of life.

I think within a few weeks the situation will cool down,” said Soliman, who has met Assad personally and has ties to the Syrian regime. “I think Syria will move toward more democratic ways than it has been over the last 40 years. Bashar and his advisers know that.”

Soliman said he is convinced that Assad and the Syrian public are ready for peace with Israel. “Syrians are ready for peace, but not peace at any price.

The Golan has to be returned, no question about it,” he said. “The key to peace between Israel and the Palestinians is peace between Israel and Syria...

Peace with Syria is the key to peace in the Middle East.”

In Homs, an activist told Reuters that a Syrian Christian was killed by a shot from a sniper to the head, and that the authorities were trying to increase sectarian tensions to undermine prodemocracy demonstrations. “Homs is shaking with the sound of explosions from tank shelling and heavy machine guns,” Najati Tayara said.

The offensive came a day after two senior officials told Western media that the Syrian uprising was nearing an end, and that authorities would not stand down under any circumstances.

Rami Makhlouf, a powerful cousin of the president, said the Assad family was not going to capitulate. “We will sit here. We call it a fight until the end...

They should know when we suffer, we will not suffer alone,” Makhlouf said in a New York Times interview published on Tuesday.

The same day, presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban told the paper, “we’ve passed the most dangerous moment... I hope we are witnessing the end of the story.”

Anthony Shadid, the Times reporter who conducted both interviews, was only allowed into the country for a few hours. The timing of the exceedingly rare US media interviews by Syrian officials suggests the Assad regime is taking extra measures to calm Western concerns about mounting bloodshed.

At least 750 people have been killed since protests began on March 18, rights activists said.

Syrian first lady Asma Assad may be living in a safe house in or near London, Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported on Tuesday, quoting a high-ranking Arab diplomat. “Her evacuation was carried out under conditions of immense secrecy, but she is now safely there with her three young children and surrounded by security guards,” the source said.

“Clearly her presence could cause huge embarrassment to the British, so none of this has been made public.”

Syrian security forces have released 300 people detained in Banias and restored basic services in the coastal city stormed by tanks last week, Reuters reported, quoting a human rights group.

Water, telecommunications and electricity had been restored, but tanks remained in major streets, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Tuesday. Two hundred people, including pro-democracy protest leaders, were still in jail, it said.

Demonstrators in Banias had raised posters of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who has had close ties to Assad, but disputed the official Syrian account of the violence.

Erdogan said more than 1,000 civilians had died and he did not want to see a repeat of the 1982 violence in Hama, Syria, or the 1988 gassing of Iraqi Kurds in Halabja, when 5,000 people were killed.

In southern Syria, four civilians in Tafas were killed as security forces widened a campaign of arrests, a human rights campaigner in the region said, adding that 300 people had been detained since tanks entered the town on Saturday.

Authorities have effectively barred foreign journalists from Syria, but Martin Fletcher, chief foreign correspondent for Britain’s The Times, was able to enter the country this week by posing as a tourist.

He was detained in Homs and for six hours was held in a windowless basement underneath an apartment building on a barricaded side street. He was not mistreated, but Fletcher’s experience gave him a rare view into the workings of the Assad security apparatus.

“Quite clearly what was happening, was the regime was rounding up any young man of fighting age it could find on the streets and locking them up,” he told the BBC. Dozens of young men were huddled on the basement floor, he said, and piles of belts and shoelaces nearby, apparently for use in interrogation.

Homs was clearly under martial law, Fletcher said, with police and armed thugs on every corner and tanks guarding every major intersection.

Outside of Homs, at least 100 tanks were deployed in anticipation of further unrest, he said.

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