US condemns Syria crackdown, presses Assad for reform

Witnesses, human rights groups say 9 killed in protests throughout Syria; police reportedly open fire, shoot tear gas at demonstrators.

Syrian protests (photo credit: REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri)
Syrian protests
(photo credit: REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri)
WASHINGTON - The White House on Friday condemned Syria's violent crackdown on anti-government protesters and urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to promptly take concrete steps toward meaningful reform.
"The Syrian government has an important opportunity to be responsive to the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people," Jay Carney, spokesman for US President Barack Obama, said in a statement. "Violence is not the answer to the grievances of the Syrian people."
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Syrian security forces killed nine protesters across the country Friday during anti-government protests, Arabic news daily Al-Arabiya reported citing witnesses and human rights activists.
Syria's state news agency acknowledged for the first time that worshippers in Deraa and Latakia, scene of protests and deadly clashes last week, had gathered after Friday prayers to call for accelerated reforms.
"A number of worshippers left some mosques in the cities of Deraa and Latakia, chanting slogans in honour of the martyr and calling for speeding up measures for reform ... There were no clashes between worshippers and security forces in these gatherings," SANA said.
Witnesses in the Damascus suburb of Douma said that three of those killed were among at least 2,000 people who chanted "Freedom. Freedom. One, one, one. The Syrian people are one," when police opened fire to disperse them from Municipality Square.
Two weeks of unprecedented unrest in Syria has left more than 60 dead and posed the gravest challenge to almost 50 years of monolithic Baath Party rule.
Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East
Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East
Protests in several cities
Earlier, civic activists said protest marches had begun in the capital Damascus, Banias and the port city of Latakia against Assad's authoritarian rule after he stopped short of a clear commitment to meet popular demands for more freedoms.
Security forces and Assad loyalists attacked protesters with batons as they left the Rifaii mosque in the Kfar Sousseh district of Damascus after Friday prayers, a witness said.
At least six protesters were arrested and dozens were beaten as they made their way out of the mosque, the witness told Reuters by telephone from the mosque complex.
Around 200 worshipers chanted slogans in support of the southern city of Deraa where the unrest kindled by pro-democracy uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world first erupted.
Online democracy activists had called for protests across Syria on "Martyrs' Friday", after a spate of pro-democracy demonstrations challenging Assad's 11 years in power. His father, Hafez al-Assad, had ruled over the previous 30 years.
Activists said security forces and Assad loyalists had earlier gathered in force around the mosques where protests resumed after Friday prayers.
In his first public appearance since the demonstrations began, Assad declined on Wednesday to spell out any reforms, especially the lifting of a 48-year-old emergency law that has been used to stifle opposition and justify arbitrary arrests.