Syrian forces kill 6 protesters, dialogue promised

Information minister says full dialogue due in all provinces; diplomat warns that Assad may be feeling international pressure.

By REUTERS
May 14, 2011 01:52
3 minute read.
The Jerusalem Post

Assad 311 (B). (photo credit: Michael Luongo/Bloomberg)

 
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AMMAN - Security forces killed six people in demonstrations across Syria on Friday calling for an end to autocratic rule, rights campaigners said, after the government promised to hold a "national dialogue" in the coming days.

The Syrian leadership has drawn increasing international criticism and modest sanctions over its military crackdown on two months of pro-democracy unrest in which rights groups say about 700 people have been killed by security forces.

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Friday's killings occurred in the southern city of Deraa, cradle of the two-month-old revolt against President Bashar Assad, the Damascus suburb of Qaboun and the central city of Homs, rights campaigner Razan Zaitouna said.

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Another rights campaigner said security police fired at a night demonstration in the eastern town of Mayadeen, injuring four people.

He said a security clampdown had intensified in recent days in a tribal area near the border with Iraq, where most of Syria's output of 380,000 barrels of oil per day are produced.

But the bloodshed and death toll after Friday prayers was less than on previous occasions. There were fewer clashes and the numbers of protesters were lower in areas where Assad dispatched troops and tanks to stamp out rallies.

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One rights activist said he had been told by a senior Assad adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, that the president had ordered troops and police not to fire on demonstrators.

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 Security forces backed off from confronting a large demonstration on Friday in Rastan near the central city of Homs, a witness said.

"There are signs that Assad may be changing tactics, possibly in reaction to international pressure," a senior Western diplomat told Reuters. "There were less shootings, but the fact that people came out today to protest with the heavy security deployment is remarkable."

Before Friday's killings, Information Minister Adnan Hasan Mahmoud said in televised remarks that Assad would hold a "national dialogue in all provinces ... (in) the coming days".

Mahmoud said army units had started to leave the coastal city of Banias and completed a pullout from Deraa, although residents there reported tanks outside mosques in the morning.

Prominent activists said that dialogue would be serious only if the government freed thousands of political prisoners and allowed freedom of expression and assembly.

Aref Dalila, an economist who met Shaaban last week, said "the domination of the security apparatus over life in Syria" must end for different opinions to be represented.

"We are long used to these 'dialogues' in Syria, where the regime assembles its loyalists in a conference and the other opinion is either in jail or underground," he said.

Assad's combination of repression and reform gestures earlier in the crisis, including lifting a 48-year state of emergency, had failed to quell the dissent.

Thousands demonstrated in towns and cities across Syria after the weekly Muslim prayers, activists and witnesses said.

Assad has used forces to suppress major centres of protests and Shaaban said earlier this week Syria had passed the "most dangerous moment" of the unrest, the stiffest challenge ever to his rule.

His Baath Party has run Syria with an iron fist since a 1963 coup, first under his father Hafez al-Assad who died in 2000 and then under Bashar.

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