Bowing to pressure, Assad sacks Hama governor

24 killed in Friday protests; United States denies report circulating of "reform road map" that would keep regime in power.

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
July 3, 2011 00:36
4 minute read.
Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks, Monday

Assad speaking 311. (photo credit: Screenshot)

 
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Syrian President Bashar Assad sacked the governor of Hama province on Saturday – a day after tens of thousands of demonstrators massed in the provincial capital to demand the Syrian leader step down.

The demonstration in Hama, scene of a bloody crackdown by Assad’s father 29 years ago, was part of nationwide protests that activists said were some of the biggest since the uprising against Assad’s rule erupted 14 weeks ago. State news agency SANA agency said Assad issued a decree dismissing Ahmad Khaled Abdulaziz, governor of Hama province, without giving details.

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The weekend’s protests took place while Assad’s troops, backed by tanks and helicopters, pursued a military campaign in the northwestern province of Idlib, where a prominent rights lawyer said 14 villagers were killed on Friday.

Another 10 people were shot dead by security forces who confronted demonstrators in the central city of Homs, Damascus suburbs and the Mediterranean city of Latakia, Omar Idibi said.

Hama was the site of an armed Islamist uprising against Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, who sent the army to crush the revolt in 1982. At least 10,000 people were killed and part of the old city was flattened in the military operation.

One month ago, activists said Syrian forces killed at least 60 protesters in the city, in one of the bloodiest days of the uprising against Assad. Residents said security forces and snipers had fired on crowds of demonstrators.

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On Thursday, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported the emergence of an apparently US-sponsored “road map” for reforms that would see Assad remain in power despite the widespread calls for his ouster.

Syrian opposition figures said the US State Department has been discreetly circulating a draft document that would see Assad preside over “a secure and peaceful transition to civil democracy,” while reining in the security forces and paramilitary “shabiha” gangs, and enact freedom of the press and assembly. Washington flatly denied the reports.

The 3,000-word document also calls for greater political participation in Syria, a “clear and frank apology” for the bloodshed and an apology to families of the victims.

Syrian protest leaders said the text was not discussed at last week’s opposition conference in Damascus, and the Guardian later reported that most opposition figures had distanced themselves from the document.

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“They are asking Bashar to lead the transition, and this is not acceptable to the protesters,” said Radwan Ziadeh, a US-based anti-government figure. “It is too late.”

Still, the leaked road map bears the signatures of Louay Hussein and Maan Abdelsalam, leading secular intellectuals in the opposition National Action Committee.

Assad has already sacked the governors of Deraa, where the protests first broke out on March 18, and Homs, but neither move halted the momentum of protests in those provinces.

Assad has also promised a national dialogue to discuss political reform in Syria, and authorities say preliminary talks with the opposition will take place on July 10.

Prominent opposition figures plan to convene their own “national salvation” conference in Damascus on July 16 to reach a broad-based blueprint for solving Syria’s political crisis.

“In light of the military solution chosen by the regime to end the revolution, the conference aims to reach a consensus guided by the popular protest movement for a transitional period and a national salvation government that lays the foundation for a new constitution and free elections,” said a statement by the organizers sent to Reuters.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Friday the Syrian government was running out of time “to allow a serious political process,” or else face increasingly organized resistance.

In a report issued on Saturday, Human Right Watch said government security forces and their allies killed 21 people in the past two weeks in Syria’s third-largest city of Homs. It said security forces beat protesters with clubs, vandalized private property and broke into homes where they suspected protesters had sought refuge.

Security personnel dressed in civilian clothes detained protesters repeatedly, often traveling in taxis to approach and detain people, the group said.

Activists say Syrian security forces have shot dead at least 1,300 civilians since the protests started, and arrested over 12,000. Authorities say 500 police and soldiers have been killed by gunmen they also blame for most civilian deaths.

The United States and European Union have put sanctions on Assad and his top officials in response to the violence, and last week the US Treasury Department said it imposed sanctions on Syria’s security forces for human rights abuses and against Iran for supporting them.

Damascus and Tehran both deny Western accusations that Iran has supported the crackdown on Syrian protesters.

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