Only hours after the regime promised to hold a ‘national dialogue’, security forces fired on protesters in cities across the country killing six, but rights campaigners say the regime may be changing tactics in response to international pressure.
REUTERS - Security forces killed six people in demonstrations across Syria on Friday calling for an end to autocratic rule, rights campaigners said, after the government pledged to hold a “national dialogue” in 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.
The killings occurred in the southern city of Deraa, cradle of the two-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, as well as in the Damascus suburb of Qaboun and the central city of Homs, prominent rights campaigner Razan Zaitouna said.
Another rights campaigner said security police fired at a night demonstration in the eastern town of Mayadeen, 40 km (40 miles) east of the city of Deir al-Zor, 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.
Portrait of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad
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.
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.
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 fact that people came out today to protest with the heavy security deployment is remarkable.”
Hours 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 only be serious 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 deployed armoured 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, most of that time with his late father Hafez al-Assad as president. On his death in 2000, Bashar took power.
‘Huge crowd’ protests in Hama
Witnesses said there were protests in Damascus, in a suburb of the capital and the city of Hama where Assad’s father crushed an armed Islamist uprising in 1982. A Kurdish opposition figure said thousands marched in three towns in eastern Syria.
Residents and activists also reported protests in towns and villages across the southern Hauran Plain, saying troops fired in the air to disperse a crowd of hundreds who took to the streets of Deraa despite an afternoon curfew.
Despite the minister’s comments about an army withdrawal, they said tanks in front of mosques and heavy security prevented most people attending prayers. A 2.30 p.m. to 8.00 a.m. curfew started two hours earlier on Friday at 12.30 p.m.
In the Damascus district of Barzeh and in the suburb of Saqba, witnesses said protesters chanted “We want the overthrow of the regime”, the slogan of the Arab uprisings which swept out the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year.
Just north of the capital, security forces fired tear gas into a crowd of 1,000 in the town of Tel, residents said.
In Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border and in village of al-Shujail north of Deir al-Zor, thousands demanded Assad’s removal, according to activists and two residents in the eastern region where authorities carried out mass arrests last week.
The main weekly prayers are a rallying point for protesters because they offer the only opportunity for large gatherings. Fridays have seen the worst death tolls in the wave of unrest.
The Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists said troops have killed 700 people, rounded up thousands and indiscriminately shelled towns during the protests.
The government says about 100 troops and police have been killed. A statement from the official SANA news agency said on Friday more than 5,000 people had surrendered to authorities over their role in the protests and been released, under an amnesty offer which runs until May 15.
In nearly two months of unrest, protests and bloodshed have spread across southern towns, cities on the Mediterranean coast, Damascus suburbs and the central city of Homs. But the two main cities of Damascus and Aleppo have remained relatively quiet.
Rights groups have chided the United States and its European allies for a tepid response to the Syria violence, in contrast with Libya where they are carrying out a bombing campaign they say will not end until Muammar Gaddafi is driven from power.
The United States and Europe have imposed economic sanctions on senior Syrian officials but not on Assad himself. Western powers say they could take further steps.
Britain summoned the Syrian ambassador to London, warning that unless Syrian authorities “stopped the killing of protesters and released political prisoners...(the EU) would take further measures to hold the regime to account”.
The U.N. human rights office said the death toll may be as high as 850 and urged the government “to exercise restraint, to cease use of force and mass arrests to silence opponents”.
Date created : 2011-05-14