Syrian tanks deploy in force to deter more unrest

Live ammo, tear gas used to disperse thousands; several youths injured; crackdown comes amid reports of at least 37 killed over weekend.

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
April 10, 2011 13:42
Syrians demonstrate after Friday prayers, Latakia.

syrian protests_311 reuters. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ho New)

 
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Syrian tanks deployed overnight in flashpoint areas, residents said on Sunday, in an effort to prevent further outbreaks of pro-democracy unrest, intensifying a crackdown on mass protests now in their fourth week.

On Saturday, Syrian security forces opened fire on mourners near a mosque in the flashpoint city of Deraa after a mass funeral for pro-democracy protesters, two witnesses said.

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That clash came a day after at least 37 people were killed nationwide, Syrian rights groups said, in the largest and deadliest rallies since the unrest began three weeks ago.

The National Organization for Human Rights in Syria said 26 protesters were killed in Deraa on Friday, after earlier reporting the deaths had occurred on Saturday.

A statement on its website on Sunday listed the names of 26 people killed in Deraa and two in Homs, and also provided the names of 13 people arrested over the last 10 days.

State television said armed groups had killed 19 policemen and wounded 75 in the city.




Syria has prevented international news media from reporting from Deraa and mobile phones lines there appeared to be cut.



On Saturday, security forces used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse thousands of people chanting freedom slogans after assembling near the old Omari mosque in the old quarter of the city, near the border with Jordan and the Golan Heights, the witnesses said.

The Guardian website posted a mobile-phone video shot on Friday in the Syrian city of Homs showing protesters chanting in support of the people of Deraa, calling Syrian President Bashar Assad a “coward” and urging him to direct his soldiers toward the Israeli-held Golan Heights rather than at fellow Syrians.

Residents in the coastal city of Latakia said security forces used live ammunition on Saturday to disperse hundreds of people, causing scores of injuries and possible deaths.

Richard Haass, president of the New York-based Council for Foreign Relations, wrote on Thursday on Time magazine’s website: “Syria could well be ripe for upheaval. Like Egypt and Libya, it has been run by a single family, one that lacks the legitimacy of a bona fide monarchy, for 40 years. And like Bahrain, Syria is ruled by a minority: its controlling elite (the Alawi sect of Shi’ite Islam) represents less than 15 percent of the total population of just over 22 million.”

But Haass, a former high-level US State Department and National Security Council official, wrote that Libya-style intervention was out of the question, as neither the international community nor the Arab states would support such a move. Nor, Haass wrote, would Israel.

“The two countries are sworn enemies, and Syria is close to Israel’s deadliest foes: Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran,” he wrote. “But for all that, the border between the two countries remains mostly quiet.

While Israelis would welcome a European-style democracy for a neighbor, they fear Bashar would more likely be succeeded by radical Islamists. As they say in Tel Aviv, ‘Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.’” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton condemned the violence on Saturday, urging Syria to implement substantive political reform.

“The Syrian people must be allowed to express their grievances without fear of intimidation, repression and arrest. Meaningful political reforms guaranteeing freedom of expression, fundamental rights and the rule of law must begin now,” she said.

Syria’s National Organization for Human Rights said 30 people had been killed on Friday in Deraa, the epicenter of protests, three in the central city of Homs and four in the Damascus suburbs of Harasta and Douma.

Kurdish activists said rallies were held in Syria’s northeastern Kurdish region, a day after Assad offered citizenship to an unspecified number of Kurds.

“The citizenship gesture only helped fuel the street [protests]. The Kurdish cause is one for democracy, freedom and cultural identity,” Hassan Kamel, a senior member of the Democratic Kurdish Party in Syria, told Reuters.

Activists and witnesses said thousands of mostly young Kurds marched in the northeastern city of Qamishli on Friday chanting: “No Kurd, no Arab, the Syrian people are one,” and “We salute the martyrs of Deraa.”

Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told ambassadors in Damascus that “subversive elements infiltrated the protesters and opened fire on the police and the protesters to drag the country into violence and cause chaos.”

The Interior Ministry accused “plotters pushed by known foreign sides” of firing at protesters to create a rift between people and police. “[They] have infiltrated the ranks of the demonstrators to sow discord between the citizens and the security forces. There is no more room for leniency or tolerance in enforcing law...

“We will not allow sabotage... and damage to national unity,” the ministry said. “Syrian authorities, in order to preserve the security of the country, citizens and the governmental and services establishments, will confront these people and those behind them according to the law.”

Osman Mirghani, editor-at-large of the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, wrote on Thursday that attributing popular unrest to Israeli intervention “is an insult to the people and their demands for freedom and dignity.

“What Israel fears the most is Washington moving closer to Arab states in order to support the democratic transformation, and putting pressure on Tel Aviv to put forward a serious initiative to move the stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace process,” Mirghani wrote.

“Israel would rather deal with individuals or despotic regimes, rather than democratic regimes that respond to the voters’ opinions and public pressure, particularly after it has seen that the peace agreements that were signed with Egypt and Jordan have failed to result in complete normalization of relations due to the opposition of public opinion,” he wrote. “Israel prefers stability and the status quo, because it has already adapted itself to the peace equation with the existing despotic regimes, rather than the people of the region.”

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