Syrians arrest dozens after at least 3 protesters killed

Golan Druse rally in support of Assad; thousands march against government throughout Syria; estimated death toll at 64.

By OREN KESSLER
April 3, 2011 01:26
Anti-government protesters in Damascus, Syria

Anti-government protesters in Damascus, Syria 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Syrian security forces detained 21 people early Saturday, a day after thousands marched against Bashar Assad’s regime in rallies across the country.

Witnesses said three or more protesters were killed Friday in the Damascus suburb of Douma, bringing the estimated death toll to at least 64. The Associated Press reported at least five people killed in Douma, and two elsewhere in Syria.

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In the Golan Heights village of Buqata, at least 2,000 Druse demonstrated Saturday in a show of support for Assad, carrying giant Syrian flags and portraits of the president, Ynet reported.

“We came out today to support the leader of our homeland, whom people are trying to hamper in running the country,” said resident Yussef Safdi. “Instead of solving domestic problems, they riot and harm Syria. We came here today to hold a quiet solidarity rally.”

“Not a single Druse forgets that he is an inseparable part of Syria,” said another resident, Nabil Frahat. “We send our encouragement to President Assad and the Syrian people.

We hope that the regime survives for the sake of the people, and is not harmed by the voices of a few thousand people who do not represent the majority.”

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Event organizers said some 4,000 people attended the march, but police put the number at just over 2,000. They did not intervene, other than to direct traffic away from the demonstration route.

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A Syrian human rights group said 21 people had been arrested Saturday in Deraa, the southern Syrian city where unrest first flared up two weeks ago.

“It is assumed their arrests are as a result of the last protests,” the rights group said, noting that arrests had also been made in the central city of Homs.

The group told Reuters it “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 rights activists.”

The day before, thousands of Syrians who hit the streets after Friday prayers, were met with live fire and tear gas from Assad’s security forces. Witnesses in Douma said the three killed were among at least 2,000 people who were chanting “Freedom! Freedom! One, one, one! The Syrian people are one!” when police opened fire to disperse them from Municipality Square.

Activists said Syrians had taken to the streets after prayers in Damascus, Deraa, the northwestern port of Latakia and the nearby city of Baniyas.

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 arrest.

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.

UN Secretary-General Ban Kimoon expressed deep concern about the violence and called on Syria’s government to address the “legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.”

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would press Assad to defuse unrest by making reforms sought by the Syrian people when he speaks to him on Monday, Turkish newspapers reported.

“Beyond governmental change, there were expectations on removal of emergency rule, release of political prisoners and a new constitution,” Erdogan told journalists who accompanied him on Friday on his way back from an official visit to London. “If those expectations do not take place, we will say this to Mr. Assad on Monday.”

Lee Smith, Middle East correspondent for The Weekly Standard, wrote Friday from Beirut: “One can’t rule out the worst for Syria, a civil war that will set its majority Sunni population against the regime and the Alawite community it’s drawn from, as well as against the regime’s Christian supporters.

There’s no way to tell who will come out on top – whether the Muslim Brotherhood is still powerful enough to topple the regime that waged war against it a generation ago, culminating in the siege and slaughter of Hama in 1982.”

An estimated 10,000 to 40,000 people were killed when Assad’s father, Hafez, put down a Brotherhood revolt in the central Syrian city.

Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood said Friday that while it supports Western intervention in Libya, the group sees no need for similar action in its own country. Libyan President Muammar “Gaddafi was killing his own people. There was no other option” than to impose a no-fly zone and act to protect civilians, the movement’s political chief, Muhammad Tayfur, told The Wall Street Journal.

In Syria, by contrast, “this is an internal problem. We believe it can be solved as brothers, and that it would be easy to solve this problem internally,” Tayfur said.

“We don’t consider the Iranian model at all. For us, and for other Arab countries, Turkey is the model,” Tayfur said at a news conference earlier Friday. “We want transparent elections, just as you have here, in which people can choose whomever they want.

The Turkish model is the most suitable.”

The UN atomic watchdog carried out an agreed inspection of a Syrian plant on Friday as part of a long-stalled probe into suspected covert nuclear activity.

“The inspection is being conducted as planned,” an official of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said, giving no further details.

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