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Demonstration turns deadly as police open fire

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-04-08

Witnesses say security forces killed at least three people when they fired on demonstrators demanding sweeping political reform in the southern city of Deraa Friday. Similar protests have been reported in other parts of the country.

REUTERS - Syrian security forces opened fire to disperse thousands of protesters, killing at least three, witnesses said, as anger at the autocratic rule of Bashar al-Assad erupted after weekly Friday prayers at mosques.

In the east, thousands of ethnic Kurds demonstrated for reform despite the president's offer this week to ease rules which bar many Kurds from citizenship, activists said.
 
Security forces used live ammunition to disperse thousands of protesters in the southern city of Deraa, where protests first erupted last month before spreading. Local residents contacted by Reuters said at least three people were killed.
 
"I saw pools of blood and three bodies in the street being picked up by relatives in the Mahatta area," said one of the witnesses, who spoke to Reuters by telephone.
 
Protests also erupted in the western city of Homs and gunfire was heard in the Damascus suburb of Harasta. The suburb of Douma, where protests have been sustained in recent days, was largely out of contact due to phone lines being cut, local activists said. Media are heavily restricted in Syria.
 
Popular demonstrations calling for greater freedoms have shaken the country for the last three weeks. Assad has responded with a blend of force against protesters, and gestures towards reform, most recently aimed at ethnic Kurds.
 
In the northeastern city of Qamishli, Kurdish youths chanted: "No Kurd, no Arab, Syrian people are one. We salute the martyrs of Deraa". Demonstrations have raised concerns that unrest could fuel ethnic and sectarian tensions in the country.
 
Friday demonstrations, which online activists have this week dubbed the "Friday of Steadfastness", have tended to see the largest protests against Assad's 11 years in power. In previous weeks security forces have opened fire, killing dozens.
 
In Deraa, people first demonstrated last month against the arrest of children who had scrawled pro-democracy graffiti inspired by the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings on school walls.
 
Sunni Muslim tribes there resent the wealth and power amassed by the minority Alawites, the offshoot sect of Shi'ite Islam to which Assad belongs. Mobile phone lines had been cut or were restricted over the last two days, the residents said.
 
Reforms "don't go to heart of problem"
 
The Baath Party, in power since a 1963 coup and run by Assad's father until his death in 2000, has tolerated no dissent and has used emergency law to justify arbitrary arrests.
 
A key demand of the protesters is to repeal the law.
 
Assad has ordered a panel to draft anti-terrorism legislation to replace emergency law, but critics say it will probably grant the state much of the same powers. He also ordered an investigation into the civilian deaths in Deraa and the port city of Latakia last month.
 
Abdelhalim Khaddam, a former vice president who resigned and defected from the Baath Party in 2005, said Assad's steps towards reform don't "go to the heart of the problem".
 
Under Assad, Syria has been Iran's closet Arab ally, a major player in Lebanon and a supporter of militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.
 
More than 70 people have been killed in the protests, which have been inspired by popular uprisings across the Arab world.
 
At least 10 people were killed last Friday in the Damascus suburb of Douma, seen as another focal point of protests where demonstrators have set up a vigil outside the mosque.
Assad's overture to Kurds who make up about 10 percent of Syria's 20 million population came after reports that authorities had released 48 Kurdish prisoners.
 
Gesture to Kurds fuelled street
 
It was not immediately clear how many Kurds would be given nationality, but at least 150,000 Kurds are registered as foreigners as a result of a 1962 census in the eastern region of al-Hasaka.
 
Syria had increased the number of arrests of dissidents, including Kurdish activists, since the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that toppled the countries' rulers, in power for decades.
 
Assad cracked down on ethnic Kurds when they launched violent demonstrations against the state in 2004.
 
"The citizenship gesture only helped fuel the street. The Kurdish cause is one for democracy, freedom and cultural identity," Hassan Kamel, a high-level member of the Kurdish Democratic Party, told Reuters.
 
State television said on Thursday Assad had fired the governor of Homs province, an area that saw clashes during protests. Officials have blamed armed groups for opening fire on citizens. Assad had also fired the Deraa governor.
 
Last week Assad sacked his government and later appointed agriculture minister Adel Safar to form a new cabinet. State news agency SANA said on Thursday the new government was expected to be announced next week.
 
Media operate in Syria under severe restrictions. Syria expelled Reuters' Damascus correspondent last month. Three other foreign Reuters journalists were expelled after being detained for two or three days and a Syrian Reuters photographer was held for six days.

 

Date created : 2011-04-08

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