Anti-government protesters in Damascus, Syria 311 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BEIRUT - Syrian security forces arrested more than 20 people, a rights group said on Saturday, after thousands marched in pro-democracy protests in unrest that has posed the gravest challenge to Syrian President Bashar Assad's rule.
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The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights named 21 people who had been rounded up by Syrian security in the southern city of Deraa, where the unrest first flared two weeks ago, and in Homs to the north of the capital.
"It is assumed their arrests are as a result of the last protests," the rights group said in a statement.
"(The rights group) demands that the Syrian authorities release all
detainees of opinion and conscience and to stop the practice of
arbitrary arrests against political opposition and civil and human
Thousands took to the streets in major cities after Friday prayers,
defying security forces who fired tear gas and live ammunition and used
batons to try and disperse protesters who have dismissed a limited
reform gesture by Assad, in power for the last 11 years.
Witnesses said security forces killed at least three protesters in the
Damascus suburb of Douma on Friday, raising to over 60 the number of
deaths in protests that were inspired by popular uprisings that have
swept the Arab world.
The turmoil could have wider repercussions since Syria, bordered by
Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, is in the thick of the Middle
East conflict, maintaining an anti-Israel alliance with Iran and
supporting militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.
'Violence is not the answer'
The United States, which has designated Syria as a "state sponsor of
terrorism" since 1979, and the United Nations, condemned the latest
escalation in violence.
"Violence is not the answer to the grievances of the Syrian people," Jay
Carney, spokesman for US President Barack Obama, said in a statement.
An official source said via state news agency SANA that "armed groups"
were responsible for the violence in Douma, Homs and Deraa, where unrest
came to a head after police detained more than a dozen schoolchildren
for scrawling graffiti inspired by popular uprisings in the Arab world.
Speaking for the first time since the unrest began, Assad on Wednesday
declined to spell out any reforms, especially the lifting of an
emergency law in force since his Baath Party took power in a 1963 coup
and that has been used to stifle opposition and justify arbitrary
Assad later ordered the formation of a panel which will draft
anti-terrorism legislation to replace emergency law, a move critics have
dismissed, saying they expected the new legislation would give the
state much of the same powers.
Ending emergency law has been a central demand of protesters, who also
want political prisoners freed, and to know the fate of tens of
thousands who disappeared in the 1980s.
Lawyers and activists have said arbitrary arrests have continued across the country in large numbers since the unrest.
Media operate in Syria under severe restrictions. Syria expelled
Reuters' Damascus correspondent last week. One foreign journalist was
released by authorities on Friday, three days after he had been
detained, while a Syrian Reuters photographer remains missing since
Monday. Two other foreign Reuters journalists were also expelled.