Syria: Archive 2

Last Updated November 10, 2014

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Aljazeera

Syrian rebels claim Alawites’ kidnapping

March 14, 2014

Opposition fighters in Syria claim to have kidnapped at least 94 women and children belonging to President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite sect, according to a video obtained by Al Jazeera. In the video, broadcast by Al Jazeera on Thurday, the rebels said they were holding the hostages to secure the release of opposition supporters from government detention. The civilians were abducted in August from villages in rural Latakia, Assad’s coastal stronghold. Thousands of people are thought to be imprisoned by both sides in the increasingly sectarian civil war, which enters its fourth year this month. The video said the rebels were ready to swap the civilians for 2,000 prisoners who have been detained for more than a year. It stipulated that most of the freed prisoners be from coastal areas of the country and that half of them be women and children. In one scene, three women wearing headscarves and simple clothing address the camera.

Another scene shows dozens of women and children standing outdoors in a walled-in area. Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority has largely joined the revolt against Assad, while minority sects have mostly stood behind him in a conflict that has killed more than 140,000 people. Both sides in the civil war have targeted citizens and attracted foreign fighters and financial support from across the region. A rare prisoner swap was achieved last week, securing the release of 13 Greek Orthodox nuns detained since December by fighters from the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria. The government freed at least 25 prisoners in exchange. Qatar said it had played a mediating role in securing the nuns’ release, but Syria denied the allegation.

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SOURCE = Aljazeera

New York Times

Questions About News Photographers in Syria Arise After Freelancer’s Death

March 13, 2014

Late last December, Ahmad Barakat, a tailor turned rebel commander in Aleppo, Syria, buried two sons who died together during a battle with Syrian government troops. The elder son, Mustafa, fought for the Tawhid rebels. The younger son, Molhem, photographed the clash for Reuters. A spike in abductions of Westerners in Syria that started last summer and continuing violence led many news organizations to curtail news gathering in rebel-held territory. Reuters continued its photography operations, often relying on local residents like Molhem, who was 18. Seasoned combat photographers are never immune to the perils of war. But since Molhem’s death, several news media outlets have questioned Reuters’s reliance on a teenage photographer in a war zone. An examination of the events surrounding Molhem’s death has also raised questions about Reuters’s network of local photographers in Syria and their journalistic practices.

Supervising a network of freelance photographers in any conflict is difficult, and the challenges in Syria are so great that few news organizations have had access to a steady stream of images there. Reuters has been the most active over the past year, providing more images to its hundreds of worldwide subscribers — newspapers, magazines and news websites — than its competitors. Interviews with numerous Syrian photographers, most requesting anonymity because they have worked as freelancers for Reuters, said many of the freelancers are activists — in one case a spokesman — who supported the rebels. Three of them also said that the freelancers had provided Reuters with images that were staged or improperly credited, sometimes under pseudonyms. And while Reuters has given the local stringers protective vests and helmets, most said that the stringers lacked training in personal safety and first aid.

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SOURCE = New York Times

Almonitor

Syrian women refugees humiliated, exploited in Turkey

March 12, 2014

REYHANLI, Turkey — Dima* is a confident 21-year-old with pale skin and big brown eyes. Her black headscarf is wrapped loosely around her head above her pink dress. She has two small children and a husband, but he currently works as a cab driver in Lebanon. Every month, Adly sends her money. However, it has been hard to make a living as a refugee, prompting Dima to look for a job as well. A few months ago, Dima found a job in a cotton factory in Reyhanli, a Turkish town near the border with Syria. In the first few weeks, everything went fine — until her Turkish boss, a middle-aged widower, began to sexually harass her. “I told him I didn’t want him to grope or touch me, but he said that if I wanted to work, I should accept it,” she told Al-Monitor while sitting in front of her tent in a small village near Reyhanli. Her boss didn’t listen. A few days later, he groped her again, saying that she could make extra money by “entertaining” him. When Dima refused, he asked her if she could at least work as a matchmaker and find some young Syrian girls for him and his friends, adding, “Those girls can certainly use the money.”

Dima ran out of the factory without her paycheck. She never went back. “A lot of Syrian women need work, and employers know that,” she said, her frustration clear on her face. “Men take advantage of the vulnerability of female Syrian refugees. We left Syria to protect our honor, and now we are being treated like animals.” Before Dima left Syria, she was a marketing student at Tishreen University in Latakia. After she got married and had children, she still took classes every day. Her husband supported her, she said, as he wanted her to succeed in life.  “I miss him so much,” she added. Women refugees from Syria are being sexually harassed by employers, landlords and even aid distributors in Lebanon, reported Human Rights Watch Nov. 27, 2013. The organization “interviewed a dozen women who described being groped, harassed and pressured to have sex.” According to Dima, young Syrian women are facing the same difficulties in Turkey, including early marriages, abuse and even prostitution. She personally knows of many Syrian girls who were forced to marry older Turkish men for money. This mainly happens in families where there is no father or older brother to support them financially. Young Syrian women, therefore, are becoming the most vulnerable citizens, many of them having lost everything during the war and struggling to survive.

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SOURCE = Almonitor

World Food Programme

Syria Conflict Enters Fourth Year As Some Food Reaches Previously Inaccessible Areas

March 10, 2014

GENEVA/AMMAN – In the last few weeks, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) succeeded in reaching many areas of Syria that were inaccessible for months. But as the conflict enters its fourth year, delivering food to people in desperate need remains a challenge. Over the last few days, WFP reached Al-Houle in rural Homs for the first time since May 2013 and delivered food for 20,000 people. Trucks carrying food rations for another 20,000 people arrived in Ar-Raqqa Governorate for the first time in six months. Locally-negotiated ceasefires allowed convoys into areas of Rural Damascus and rural Dara’a. Five WFP trucks delivered food for 17,500 people in camps for displaced people north of Idlib. Among the camps were some that had not been reached directly by WFP since the start of the conflict in 2011.

However, worsening security is creating setbacks in some areas, such as the Northeast governorate of Deir-Ezzor. Although an inter-agency convoy delivered food and other humanitarian supplies to 27,000 people there last month, a sudden deterioration in security on the roads leading to Deir-Ezzor is preventing the dispatch of more food in March. “One-off convoys into besieged areas can provide temporary relief, but WFP still needs proper and sustained access to people to provide life-saving assistance and also to assess the scale of the needs,” said Amir Abdulla, WFP’s Deputy Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer, in Geneva. In February, WFP assisted 3.7 million people in Syria and more than 1.5 million refugees in neighbouring countries. The UN food agency aims to reach as many as 4.25 million people inside Syria every month, but insecurity is leaving half a million people without food assistance. The operations are financed entirely by voluntary contributions, and funding is also a challenge, said Abdulla.

“It would be tragic to secure more access in Syria but to then find ourselves in a situation where we do not have the required funds to assist hungry people who have long been under siege. We certainly hope that donors will step up their contributions and new ones will come forward,” said Muhannad Hadi, WFP Regional Coordinator for the Syria crisis, in Amman. A lack of timely funding has forced WFP to reduce the size of this month’s food basket for vulnerable families inside Syria by 20 percent. As a result, families are receiving fewer nutrients than they require to stay healthy (1,530 kilocalories, compared to the planned 1,920 kilocalories.) This year, WFP has appealed for US$2 billion to feed around 7 million Syrians displaced in their country or who have fled to neighbouring countries. WFP needs US$309 million to cover the food needs of vulnerable Syrians until the end of May. “We are grateful to the generosity of our donors, whose contributions have enabled us to save lives, but our emergency operation is running hand-to-mouth and our funding has now reached dangerous levels,” said Hadi.

Delays in funding have an impact on operations, as it takes close to three months from the moment WFP purchases food until it arrives in Syria and is dispatched for distribution. Funding is also essential for WFP operations in neighbouring countries, where over 1.5 million Syrian refugees depend on the UN food agency’s food vouchers. WFP often uses vouchers to provide assistance where markets are functioning but people cannot afford to buy food. Vouchers provide people with more choice; they can buy fresh foods such as fruit, vegetables and milk that are not normally included in conventional food rations. In 2013, through the voucher programme, WFP injected over US$400 million into the local economies of neighbouring countries. WFP plans to expand its voucher assistance to reach over 2.9 million Syrian refugees this year.

SOURCE = World Food Programme

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AFP

Syria’s Assad: Russia restoring balance to world stage

March 12, 2014

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose embattled regime relies on key support from Russia, praised Moscow on Tuesday for restoring balance to international relations, state media reported. “Russia has reestablished balance in international relations, after long years of hegemony” by the United States, SANA quoted Assad as saying as he received a Russian parliamentary delegation. He described Moscow’s role as “essential and vital,” and expressed “the admiration of the Syrian people for Russia’s positions.” Assad accused the United States and other Western governments of “acting to destabilise countries whose policies do not coincide with their own.” Russia is one of the Assad government’s main allies, providing it with diplomatic cover and continued weapons supplies as it battles an insurgency about to enter its fourth year. SANA said the Russian delegation informed Assad he had been accepted into the Russian Academy of Sciences for having “strengthened Syrian-Russian relations.” More than 140,000 people have died in Syria since the conflict began in 2011.

Copyright 2014: Agence France-Presse

New York Times

U.N. Denies That Syria Image Was Faked

March 12, 2014

“The photo is an exact replica of reality,” Mr. Gunness said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem, where he is based. “I can understand why that reality would beggar belief. But in the 21st century, such a scene exists. People are incredulous because it’s hard to believe.”

A United Nations photograph showing a sea of hungry Palestinians awaiting emergency food amid the detritus of their bomb-ravaged neighborhood near Damascus has been retweeted more than eight million times in the past few weeks, becoming such an arresting image of the Syrian civil war that some blogosphere skeptics have suggested that it was digitally faked. The suggestion provoked a passionate denial on Tuesday by the official responsible for distributing the photo. The official, Chris Gunness, the spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which administers aid to Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, said he was stupefied by the expressions of doubt about the photo. At the same time, Mr. Gunness said, the skepticism may partly reflect a blindness by many people to what is happening in Syria, which entered its fourth year of war this month.

SYRIA-refugees

This photo of Palestinian refugees lining up for food aid in Syria has drawn wide attention online. Credit UNRWA, via Associated Press

Mr. Gunness, who has expressed personal outrage at conditions at the Yarmouk camp, chose the photograph to represent the suffering in Syria as part of a social media campaign known as a Thunderclap. The campaign, by 130 humanitarian relief organizations, including major United Nations agencies, is pressing for access to Syrian civilians trapped in fighting between President Bashar al-Assad’s loyalists and insurgents. Organizers of the campaign are planning to display the photo on a giant screen in Times Square when the number of retweets reaches 23 million — matching Syria’s prewar population — which is expected to happen next week. The organizers are also planning a flash-mob event in Times Square to coincide with the display, in which participants dressed in black will hold loaves of Syrian pita bread aloft in a symbolic gesture to the suffering people shown in the image.

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SOURCE = New York Times

Reuters

U.N. refugee chief warns world powers not to forget Syria conflict

March 12, 2014

WASHINGTON, March 11 (Reuters) – The head of the United Nation’s refugee agency said on Tuesday it must be ready in case Ukraine’s crisis causes refugees to flee Crimea, but his biggest worry is that “a total disaster” could occur if the international community diverts its attention away from Syria’s conflict. Antonio Guterres, the head of the U.N.’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), said in an interview that little progress was being made in efforts by the United States and Russia, now at loggerheads over Ukraine, to bring Syria’s warring sides together after the collapse of talks in Geneva last month. “In the moment in which we need the most relevant countries in the world to be able to come together to narrow their differences and to try to find a way to move into peace for Syria, this tension around Ukraine will obviously not help,” Guterres told Reuters while visiting Washington to discuss Syria’s refugee crisis. “I hope that those that have the most important responsibility in world affairs will be able to understand that forgetting Syria will be a total disaster,” he said.

Tensions between Washington and Moscow have risen over Russia’s bloodless seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea region, which has brought U.S.-Russian relations to one of their lowest points since the Cold War. The United States and European allies have threatened sanctions against Moscow, which has said people in Crimea, a small majority of whom are ethnic Russians, should have the right to secede by voting in a referendum to be held on Sunday. Guterres said his agency was preparing for the possibility of refugees from Crimea and had moved teams inside Ukraine to monitor the situation. “We are preparing ourselves for any movement of population that might occur,” said Guterres. “Until now it has not happened in a significant way, and we hope that it will be avoided,” he said. “Our hope is that things will not evolve in a way that will force large numbers of people to be displaced. We have enough problems of refugees and displaced people in the world, we can live without a new massive displacement,” he added.

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SOURCE = Reuters

NBC News

Living in a Box, Eating Weeds: Syria’s Children on the Edge

March 12, 2014

“They are the children of a war that never ends. Their three years enduring it is a lifetime for any child.”

DAMASCUS, Syria — They live in a wooden box at the side of a road: six children, their mother and father. The children’s shoes are broken, their hands dirty, their faces smiling but tired of a life lived on the edge, almost literally. They don’t have money. They don’t go to school and they haven’t for two years. They eat food handouts to survive. It’s not the way life used to be for the children of the Al Kilzi family. They had a house, not fancy, but theirs. Their father worked. And their older sister, 14-year-old Hayat, lived with them. Then Syria’s war smashed their lives apart in the dangerous Yarmouk district of the capital, Damascus. They were driven from their home. Hayat was kidnapped by armed men, and their father had a stroke because he couldn’t raise the ransom to get her back. He now lies virtually paralyzed on the matted floor of the wooden box. Doctors have told his wife Feyrouz that he will never recover. Three of his children stroke his hair and his arms as Feyrouz laments her lost life.

“Before we had freedom,” she tells me, “now it is like living in an open prison.” She weeps, recalling her lost daughter, showing me her passport-sized photograph. “I think of her all the time; if she’s hungry, or thirsty, or cold. My heart is broken.” Watching her cry amid the wreckage of her life, in a wooden box, her husband at her feet, was pitiful. Her eldest son Muhammed is a serious-looking boy, and no wonder. “I had a real home,” he tells me. “Now we live in this hut, covered in plastic. It leaks when it rains.” He glances at his father. “I love him so much” he says quietly. Every week he collects the medicine his father needs from the United Nations. His younger brother, keen to be heard, says, “God knows when this will end.”

Yarmouk has seen heavy fighting for two years and is now under the control of the Nusra Front, a branch of Al Qaeda. Once I could get to its entrance. Now noone can, especially not the U.N. workers who distributed food for a few days last month. This is now the reality of life for seven of Syria’s children, the children of Yarmouk; lives lived on the street or in the hands of kidnappers, childhoods brutalized, all innocence lost. And yet they rank among the lucky ones. At least 10,000 Syrian children have been killed in the war. Tens of thousands more have been injured, many severely, with limbs lost, spinal injuries, whole body burns and all the many horrific legacies of war. It is little wonder that the U.N. says this is perhaps the most dangerous place on earth to be a child, with the highest casualty rates for children ever recorded in the region. Millions of children, like those of the Al Kilzi family, need outside help to survive. They are the children of a war that never ends. Their three years enduring it is a lifetime for any child.

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SOURCE = NBC News

AP

Syria’s Assad visits refugees near Damascus

March 12, 2014

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria’s state TV is reporting that President Bashar Assad has made a rare public appearance, visiting people displaced by the war in a Damascus suburb. The TV says the visit took place on Wednesday in the suburb of Adra but gave no further details. Syrian troops have been on the offensive in Adra, just northeast of Damascus, after rebels captured parts of it in December, which displaced thousands from the area. Syria’s civil war, now entering its fourth year, has killed more than 140,000 people. According to U.N. figures, the conflict has also forced about 2.3 million Syrians to seek shelter in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq. Also, a July U.N. estimate said 6.5 million have been uprooted from their homes and displaced within Syria.

Copyright 2014: Associated Press

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telegraph

Syrian rebels release nuns held since December

March 10, 2014

Rebels in Syria have freed more than a dozen Greek Orthodox nuns, ending their four-month captivity in exchange for Syrian authorities releasing dozens of female prisoners. The release of the nuns and their helpers, 16 women in all, is a rare successful prisoner exchange deal between Syrian government authorities and the rebels seeking to overthrow the rule of President Bashar Assad. But it is unlikely to soothe the fears of many Syrian Christians that their ancient minority is in danger should rebels come to power. A convoy of 30 cars delivered the nuns to the Syrian town of Jdeidet Yabous, which lies close to the Lebanese border. A photograph published on Lebanon’s official news site showed soldiers assisting a middle-aged nun out a vehicle. “We arrived late, and we arrived tired,” said Mother Superior Pelagia Sayaf, the head of the Maaloula convent.

Behind her, women ululated in celebration on footage broadcast on Syrian television. They were then ushered into an honorary guest room by Syrian officials. Approximately 150 female prisoners are to be released in exchange for the nuns’ freedom, said the head of Lebanon’s General Security agency, Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who oversaw the deal, speaking to Syrian television. Gen Ibrahim said the deal nearly collapsed at the last minute after rebels demanded more prisoners be released. Syrian rebels, including members of the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, seized the 13 nuns and their three helpers from the Mar Takla convent when fighters overran the Christian village of Maaloula, north of Damascus, in December. Sayaf said the nuns were treated well, although they did not feel comfortable wearing their crosses and crucifixes. The nuns, who are believed to be mostly Syrian and Lebanese, worked in the convent’s orphanage.

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SOURCE = The Telegraph

telegraph

Syrian forces ‘committing war crimes by starving Palestinian camp’

March 10, 2014

Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad have committed war crimes by deliberately starving civilian inhabitants of a Palestinian refugee camp during their bloody three-year war against an armed uprising, a leading human rights group says. Amnesty International also accuses security forces of targeting doctors and medics, while at the same charging rebel groups of looting vital medical equipment in the sprawling Yarmouk camp, in the south-side of Damascus, the Syrian capital. The 40-page report, Squeezing The Life Out of Yarmouk: War Crimes Against Besieged Civilians, paints a harrowing picture of life inside a camp whose population has plunged to between just 17,000 and 20,000 after having been home to180,000 Palestinians and several hundred thousand Syrians before the conflict. In total, two-thirds of Syria’s Palestinian refugees – who numbered 530,000 before the country’s civil war – have been displaced, with tens of thousands being dispersed to other countries.

Of 200 deaths highlighted between last July and last month, 128 died of starvation, Amnesty’s report asserts, after an existing siege of the camp was intensified to completely cut off food and medical supplies. With 60 per cent of the population suffering from malnutrition, residents reported not having eaten fruit or vegetables for months. The price of one kilogram (2.2 ibs) of rice has soared to £60. Many have been reduced to eating leaves and weeds, while others have been targeted by snipers as they foraged for food. Some have suffered severe allergic reactions such as bloating after eating a plant knows as bird’s foot trefoil that is usually consumed by cattle and other livestock. Other medical complications have arisen for desperate residents reduced to eating carcasses of cats and dogs. At least 12 medical workers have been arrested during the siege, six of whom remain unaccounted for. One doctor reportedly died after being tortured in detention.

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SOURCE = The Telegraph

bbc

Syria: Assad forces ‘using starvation as weapon of war’

March 10, 2014

Starvation tactics against civilians are being used as a weapon of war by the Syrian government, Amnesty International says. The rights group says at least 128 refugees have died at the besieged Yarmouk camp in Damascus as a result. It says thousands of people still trapped there face a “catastrophic humanitarian crisis”. Amnesty says families have been forced to forage for food in the streets – risking being killed by snipers. There were reports of fresh fighting on the edge of the camp earlier this week. Yarmouk camp, which is estimated to house around 17,000-20,000 Palestinian and Syrian refugees, has seen some of the worst fighting in the capital. It has been without electricity since April 2013 and most of the hospitals have closed after running out of even the most basic medical supplies.

“Syrian forces are committing war crimes by using starvation of civilians as a weapon of war,” says Philip Luther, Amnesty’s Middle East director. “The harrowing accounts of families having to resort to eating cats and dogs, and civilians attacked by snipers as they forage for food, have become all too familiar details of the horror story that has materialised in Yarmouk.” Mr Luther described the siege as “collective punishment” of the civilian population and called on the Syrian government to allow humanitarian agencies immediate access to the camp. Residents told Amnesty that they have not eaten fruit or vegetables for months and at least 60% of people in Yarmouk are said to be suffering from malnutrition.

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SOURCE = BBC News

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HRW says UN should probe Syria’s deadly crackdown

April 24, 2011

BEIRUT — An international human rights group is calling on the United Nations to set up an inquiry into the Syrian security forces’ crackdown on protesters that has left at least 120 dead people in the past two days. The New York-based Human Rights Watch also says the U.S. and EU should impose sanctions against Syrian officials who are responsible for the use of force. More than 300 people have been killed, including more than 120 on Friday and Saturday, since the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime began five weeks ago, according to rights groups. Also Sunday, 10 Syrian human rights groups said authorities have detained leading activist Daniel Saoud, who heads the Committees for the Defense of Democracy, Freedoms and Human Rights. Saoud lives in the coastal city of Banias.

Syria Protests; Shocking Videos Show Friday’s Bloody Crackdown

April 22, 2011

Syria’s activists called for the largest protests since demonstrations began a month ago, and reports indicate that huge crowds took to the streets to call for President Bashar Assad’s ouster. However, the government responded with a violent crackdown that left at least 75 people dead. Syria has expelled journalists and the government tightly controls access to the protests. However, dramatic videos have surfaced on Facebook and YouTube showing the horrifying violence taking place while tens of thousands continue to march. Below, find some of the videos circulating of the protests and violence that rocked Syria on Friday. Please note, some videos are extremely graphic.

Syrian forces raid homes to quell protests

April 24, 2011

Secret police raided homes near Damascus overnight, rights campaigners said , as popular opposition to President Bashar al Assad mounted following the bloodiest attacks on pro-democracy protesters. Security operatives in plain clothes wielding assault rifles broke into homes in the suburb of Harasta just after midnight on Sunday, arresting activists in the area, known as the Ghouta, or the old garden district of the capital. Security forces and gunmen loyal to Assad killed at least 112 people in the last two days when they fired at protests demanding political freedoms and an end to corruption on Friday and on mass funerals for victims a day later.

Two Syrian legislators resigned their posts in parliament as outrage grows over the security force’s ongoing crackdown on anti-government protests. Nasser al-Hariri and Khalil al-Rifaei, independent MPs who represent the city of Daraa, where scores of protesters have been killed, both separately told Al Jazeera on Saturday that they were resigning over the killings of demonstrators. “I feel sorry for those who were killed in Houran today and yesterday by the bullets of security forces, despite the fact that the president has promised no live ammunition by security forces at all,” al-Hariri said. He was referring to the deaths of protesters a day earlier, as well as the deaths of mourners killed on Saturday when security forces opened fire at a funeral procession.

“Being an MP I feel the need to step down, as long as I am unable to protect the voters killed by live ammunition and so I feel better to resign,” he said. Al-Rifaei said: “I convey my condolence to the people of Houran and the Syrian people. The Syrian people and the people of Houran voted for me to be a member of parliament and now I can’t protect them anymore.” Rezq Abdulrahman Abazeid, the government-appointed mufti for Daraa, which has been a focal point for pro-democracy protests, also resigned on Saturday in protest at the killing of demonstrators by security forces. At least 15 people were reported killed on Saturday and more than 220 protesters have been killed since protests against the government of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, erupted on March 18 in Daraa, rights campaigners say.

Nasser Weddady, an outreach director at the American Islamic Conference, which promotes civil liberties in the Middle East, said that the resignations on Al Jazeera were a “slap in the face” to al-Assad’s government. “Right now the only option left for Bashar al-Assad is to deploy the armed forces because clearly the multiple intelligence services are unable to hold the people at bay,” he said. “The moment of truth, the day or reckoning, will come when Bashar al-Assad is forced to deploy the military to the cities to quell the protest … that’s when we’ll understand how significant these cracks will be if the conscripts and the soldiers start refusing orders or even joining the protesters.”

Security forces continued to crack down on tens of thousands of protesters on Saturday, mainly at funerals for demonstrators killed in previous violence, with 120 people thought to have been killed in the last 48 hours. At least four people were killed in the Damascus suburb of Douma, a witness told Al Jazeera, after security forces on the ground and snipers on rooftops opened fire on a crowd of mourners. Eyewitness in Douma on Saturday said that the gunfire erupted during the funeral processions, a day after eight people were killed and at least 25 injured in an attack on protesters. Snipers took up positions on the top of a Baath Party building near the privately-run Hamdan Hospital, where residents had overnight formed a human shield around the main gate, in order to prevent security forces from arresting those who were injured and being treated inside.

Syrian MPs resign and 12 mourners die in continued crackdown on protesters

April 24, 2011

At least 12 mourners have been killed in Syria as pro-democracy protesters buried their dead after the bloodiest day yet of an uprising against the country’s authoritarian government. Two politicians also resigned from parliament in a sign of growing unease at the government’s use of lethal force. Nasser al-Hariri, a member of Syria’s parliament from Deraa, told al-Jazeera Arabic TV: “I can’t protect my people when they get shot at so I resign from parliament.” Minutes later a second politician, Khalil al-Rifae, also from Deraa, resigned live on the channel.

The resignations – the first during this crisis – were a significant sign of unease at escalating violence. Security forces again opened fire at funerals for Friday’s victims, where large crowds of mourners were chanting anti-government slogans. A witness in Izraa told the Observer that five people from nearby Dael and Nawa were shot dead at the entrance to the town . “They were attempting to come to the funerals of 10 people killed on Friday,” he said. He insisted the security forces and army were responsible. News agencies reported that at least two mourners had been shot dead by snipers in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, and three in the district of Barzeh.

Human rights organisations and activists said at least 76 people and possibly more than 100 were killed during the largest and bloodiest protests yet on Friday, as the unrest continued into its eighth week. Many were shot in the head and chest, and mosques were used as hospitals. Al-Jazeera reported accounts of Syrian security officers entering hospitals and clinics to take the dead and injured to military hospitals in an apparent attempt to cover up casualty figures.

Syrian protesters call for end of regime at mass funerals

April 18, 2011

Thousands of people chanting for the toppling of the Syrian regime took to the streets of the country’s third largest city for mass funerals, as activists denied any US role in the uprising. Rights groups say security forces killed at least 25 in Homs on Sunday night as protests erupted despite president Bashar al-Assad’s offers of reforms in a bid to quell unrest. A further five people were killed on Sunday night in the nearby town of Talbisseh, and there were also unconfirmed reports of four dead in Latakia, rights activists said.

Residents of Homs and Talbisseh told news agencies that the cities were tense following funerals for at least 8 of the victims. The injured were refusing to seek medical treatment for fear of being arrested, they said, while reports suggested a sit-in was being staged. Despite a reduced level of violence during Friday’s protests and a pledge to lift emergency laws within the week, protesters turned out on Sunday for Syria’s independence day which commemorates the departure of the last French soldier in 1946.

Protests also took place in Daraa, Duma and Latakia on Sunday, and Daraa again on Monday]. Amateur footage suggests a rapidly growing number of demonstrators are calling for the toppling of the regime rather than freedom. Amid the funerals, internal activists stressed the grassroots nature of Syria’s uprising after the publication of a US embassy cable leaked to Wikileaks on Monday saying that the US had channelled funds to Syrian pro-democracy groups. The cableclaimed that, since 2006, $6m (£3.6m) had been channelled to groups including the Movement for Justice and Development, a moderate Islamist party based in London, and Barada TV.

Thousands take to streets in Syria protests

April 15, 2011

Pro-democracy protests have taken place in several cities in Syria, a day after Bashar al-Assad, the country’s president, attempted to calm mounting opposition to his rule. Around 2,500 people marched in the Syrian town of Daraa on Friday, chanting slogans calling for the “freedom” of the southern town, which has been the epicentre of protests against President Assad’s rule. “Between 2,500 and 3,000 people showed up at Al-Saraya area in the centre of the city, chanting slogans in favour of freedom and against the hostile regime,” a human rights activist told the AFP news agency, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Protests are also under way in Baniyas, Homs, Latakia and Deir ez Zor, as well as in the Douma suburb of the capital Damascus. Rula Amin, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Daraa, reported that the army and security forces were not visible in the city, and that the protesters were being allowed to hold their demonstration. “It’s a completely different scene from last Friday when more than 26 people were killed during protests and clashes with the security forces and protesters here. Today, no security forces are visible at all. People went after the Friday prayers … in thousands. They were marching carrying olive branches saying ‘peaceful, freedom’. Some were demanding the toppling of the regime, others were saying they just want reforms,” she reported.

“It comes one day after they met with President Assad in an attempt by the government to calm the situation. Now here in Daraa, these measures seem to have calmed the situation a little bit. People say the president promised them very specific reforms that will be announced very soon, maybe as early as next week.” A large pro-democracy protest also took place in the city of Deir ez Zor, on the Euphrates river, while a smaller demonstration was reported in the Barzeh district of Damascus, Reuters reported. In the coastal city of Baniyas, meanwhile, about 1,500 people chanted “freedom” after Friday prayers, despite the deployment of the army in the city as part of a deal to contain protests, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The latest demonstrations come a day after the Syrian government announced an amnesty for scores of prisoners detained since protests began. President Assad has also unveiled a new cabinet, in a move to placate those calling for political changes. Last Friday, Syrian security forces shot dead more than 26 people in Daraa after thousands of people staged pro-democracy rallies after midday prayers. The protesters were killed when security forces opened fire with rubber bullets and live rounds to disperse stone-throwing protesters. One of the key demands of the protesters has been the lifting of emergency law in the country, which has been in place since 1963.

Al Jazeera’s Amin reported that the delegation from Daraa which met with the president was satisfied with his promises that the law would lifted in the coming weeks. “According to the delegation that met with the president, he told them that [the emergency law] will be lifted.  They said it is going to be lifted by April 25, the deadline that the government had announced, and they are happy with that. “They feel this is one of the major issues and the source of many of the problems. They are tired and have had enough of the security forces having a free hand in arresting people, putting them in prison without trial for years,” she reported.

Thirteen shot dead after Syrian police use live rounds to disperse protesters

Syrian security forces have killed at least 13 people after they opened fire to disperse thousands protesting against Bashar al-Assad. Troops used live ammunition on crowds of people in the southern city of Deraa, where protests first erupted last month. And in the east, thousands of ethnic Kurds called for reform despite an offer by the president this week to ease rules barring many Kurds from citizenship.

One witness said: ‘I saw pools of blood and three bodies in the street being picked up by relatives in the Mahatta area.’ Protest also erupted in the western city of Homs and gunfire was heard in the Damascus suburb of Harasta. Waves of demonstrations calling for greater freedoms have shaken the country for the last three weeks. Assad has responded with force and gestures towards reform, most recently towards the ethnic Kurds. Protest organisers have called on Syrians to take to the streets every Friday, demanding reform in one of the most authoritarian nations in the Middle East.

The protests have rattled the regime of President Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for nearly 40 years. The state-run News agency said a police officer and an ambulance driver were among those killed in Daraa today. The report blamed ‘armed men’ for the violence. President Assad has sacked his cabinet and fired two governors in bid to appease protesters. Today’s demonstrations, which online activists dubbed the ‘Friday of Steadfastness’, were expected to be among the largest protests against Assad’s 11 years in power.

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, an offshoot sect of Shi’ite Islam to which Assad belongs. Mobile phone lines have been cut or were restricted in the last two days, according to residents.

Syria ‘to lift emergency law’

March 27, 2011

A Syrian government adviser has confirmed to Al Jazeera that the country’s emergency law is to be lifted. Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, told Al Jazeera’s Cal Perry in the capital, Damascus, on Sunday that the law would “absolutely” be lifted, but failed to give a timetable. The repeal of the emergency law, in place since the 1963 coup that brought the Baath Party to power, has been a key demand of protesters who have taken to the streets in recent days to demand greater political freedoms. The emergency law imposes restrictions on public gatherings and movement and authorises the arrest of “suspects or persons who threaten security”. It also authorises the interrogation of any individual and the surveillance of personal communication as well as official control of the content of newspapers and other media before publication. The state also announced a series of reforms, including the release of detainees and plans to form new laws on the media and licensing political parties.

Shaaban added that there will be a debate in parliament regarding the establishment of political parties. “There are many issues which were decided, and which are being followed up with the president and the government,” she said.  Pressed on when reforms would be implemented, she said that “one or two steps in the implementation [of reforms]” would be announced within a week. Despite the week-long crackdown, Syria’s government had pledged to consider reforms and has released dozens of political prisoners in an effort to defuse demonstrations. Al Jazeera’s Perry said the move to lift the emergency law would go some way towards appeasing the protesters’ demands. “It will open up press freedom and political freedom. This is something that people have been calling for on the streets. Certainly it is a concession on the government’s part,” he said.

Dozens of pro-reform protesters have been killed in clashes with security forces and government supporters in towns and cities across the country. Shaaban also told Al Jazeera that the government will launch an investigation into the violence that occurred in Sanamin. Meanwhile, in the northeastern port of Latakia, the army has been deployed after clashes resulted in the deaths of at least three people. Rights groups however have claimed that the death toll could be higher. Soldiers took to the streets of Latakia on Saturday night to help secret police and security forces control the port, residents said. The army also increased checkpoints around the southern city of Deraa, where Human Rights Watch says 61 people have died. “There is a feeling in Latakia that the presence of disciplined troops is necessary to keep order,” one resident told Reuters news agency.

“We do not want looting.” Dozens of people have also died in protests in Deraa and in nearby Sanamin, Damascus and other towns over the last week. There have also been protests in Hama, a northern city where in 1982, the forces of president Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, killed thousands of people and razed much of the city’s old quarter to surpress an armed uprising by Islamist fighters. The government blames armed groups for setting off the recent bloodshed.

‘100 protesters killed’ as Syria erupts in violence

March 28, 2011

Up to 100 people were feared dead and many more injured after Syria exploded in violence yesterday. Soldiers opened fire on pro-democracy campaigners in several cities, after tens of thousands took to the streets to protest across the country. For the first time, protesters clashed with supporters of President Bashar Assad in the capital Damascus. But the flashpoint was again the southern city of Daraa, where heavy gunfire could be heard after thousands of  protesters chanting ‘Freedom!’ and waving Syrian flags attacked a statue of former president Hafez Assad, the father of Bashar.

Syrian forces were yesterday reported to have killed six protesters who tried to torch the ruling Ba’ath Party base in the port city of Latakia. At least two were killed yesterday after security forces opened fire on protesters,’ said activist Ammar Qurabi. Four more protesters are believed to have been killed in the city on Friday. President Bashar Assad has now pulled back police and soldiers from of Daraa and released hundreds of political prisoners in an attempt to appease demonstrators furious about the violent crackdown on dissent.

Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt said: ‘I condemn the violence that has resulted in a large number of deaths in Daraa. ‘All Syrians have a right to express their views peacefully. ‘Violence is never the right answer.’ Thousands defied bans to take to the streets to protest after more than 20 people, including some in a mosque, were said to have been killed by security forces in the city during the week. That crackdown, following the wave of pro-democracy demonstrations that have spread across the Middle East and North Africa was the spark for the unprecedented nationwide protests. In Damascus demonstrators shouting in support of the Deraa protesters  clashed with regime supporters outside the Umayyad mosque.

The clashes represented a major escalation of the showdown between President Assad’s regime and the crowds in Deraa who began protesting against conditions in the drought-stricken south last week. An activist in Damascus in touch with witnesses in the southern village of Sanamein said troops there opened fire on demonstrators trying to march to Daraa, a short distance away. He said there had been witness reports of fatalities, some claiming as many as 20 had been killed, but those could not be independently confirmed.

Syria: Funerals of ‘dozens’ of shot protesters spark violence

March 27, 2011

Thousands of mourners at a funeral for a Syrian killed in anti-government protests burned a ruling Baath party building and a police station yesterday as authorities freed 260 prisoners in an attempt to placate reformists. Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, is facing the deepest crisis of his 11 years in power after security forces fired on protesters on Friday. Amnesty International puts the death toll in Deraa in the past week at 55 at least.  Mosques across Deraa announced the names of “martyrs” whose funerals would be held in the southern city, and hundreds gathered in the main square chanting for freedom. In nearby Tafas, residents said mourners in one of the funeral processions set fire to the Baath building and the police station.

Such demonstrations would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago in this most tightly controlled of Arab countries. But the unrest came to a head after police detained more than a dozen schoolchildren for writing graffiti inspired by slogans used by other pro-democracy demonstrators abroad. There was a chorus of international condemnation of the shootings. But analysts said foreign nations were likely to tread carefully around Syria, which has a close alliance with Iran and links to the Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas and the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah. There were also protests on Friday in Damascus and Hama, a northern city where in 1982 the forces of Mr Assad’s father killed thousands of people and razed much of the old quarter to put down an armed uprising by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

Syria unleashes force on protesters demanding freedom as unrest spreads

March 26, 2011

Demonstrations in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and elsewhere were met with force as security forces struggled to contain unrest that had begun in the southern city of Deraa a week ago. Thousands once again joined funeral processions in Deraa on Friday, chanting: “Deraa people are hungry, we want freedom.” Hundreds took to the streets in the cities of Homs, Hama, Tel and Latakia and in towns surrounding Deraa, with smaller protests in the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo, which are more firmly under the watch of security forces. Troops reportedly opened fire in some cases. There were reports that at least 23 people had been killed, some of them in Damascus, hitherto unaffected; the reports could not be independently verified. Amnesty International put the death toll around Deraa in the past week at 55 at least.

Protests in the capital are rare and not tolerated by the Ba’athist regime. A witness told the Guardian that efforts at protests in Damascus were broken up by plain-clothed agents using batons. By nightfall, a counter-demonstration had been put on near the historic Umayyad mosque in the heart of the capital. Clashes were reported between anti-regime demonstrators and loyalists. A large rally then began in support of President Bashar al-Assad. Hundreds drove around beeping horns and waving flags, whilst posters of the president were put up in the city. The violence in Syria came after the government had pledged on Thursday to look into reforms. But activists using the Syrian Revolution Facebook page had called for a day of solidarity with Deraa. In the past, many young Syrians had been willing to overlook corruption, a lack of freedom and the slow pace of reforms in return for what they have seen as dignified leadership brought about by Assad’s anti-Western foreign policy. He has also had a youthful appeal. Both appear to now be wearing thin.

“Regimes become really weak when their image turns to brutality. The killings in Deraa have done that,” said Ziad Malki, an activist living in exile in Switzerland. “The Syrian people want more now.” Others agreed that a turning point had been reached. “Syrians [normally] never come out to protest. This shows how the killings, the worthless reforms announced yesterday and the government propaganda is insulting and is only making us angrier,” said a 32-year-old man. The protests and revolts across the Arab world continued elsewhere in Jordan, Bahrain and Yemen. In Amman, one person was killed and more than 100 wounded when pro-government loyalists attacked a weekly pro-reform vigil in the heart of the Jordanian capital. The clashes were broken up by riot police. The violence was the first of its kind in Jordan in more than two months of protests which have seen the king sack his cabinet and pledge reforms.

Islamic Action Front leader Hamza Mansour, whose party leads Jordan’s nascent opposition, said one of its members, Khairi Jamil Saeed, 26, was killed by being beaten by police. “This is an atrocious crime and we blame it on prime minister Marouf al-Bakhit and his cabinet,” Mansour told the Associated Press. “The prime minister and the cabinet must resign.” Bakhit blamed opposition Islamists for the clash. “What happened today is definitely the start of chaos and it is unacceptable and I warn of the consequences,” Bakhit told Jordanian television.

Syria: Protests in Deraa, Damascus, Hama and Homs

March 25, 2011

Protests have been staged in towns and cities across Syria, including the capital Damascus, a day after the government announced limited changes. Unconfirmed reports said a number of people had been killed in at least three separate protests. Fresh gunfire was also heard in the city of Deraa, which has become the centre of a serious challenge to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Amnesty International fears 55 people have died there in the past week. The marchers who took to the streets in Deraa on Friday had attended funerals for some of the 25 protesters killed on Wednesday. Some of the protesters started a fire under a bronze statue of Mr Assad’s father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, witnesses reported.

Another group of protesters trying to reach Deraa were killed in the nearby village of Salamen when security forces opened fire.  A government official confirmed that at least 10 protesters had died, although witnesses said up to 20 people had been killed. In Damascus, around 1,000 were reportedly continuing a protest into Friday night, vowing to stay until their demands had been met. Earlier, hundreds marched on King Faisal Street chanting: “Peaceful, Peaceful, God, Syria, Freedom.” This protest was broken up by security forces and many were arrested, reports say. Another protest reported to the BBC by an eyewitness took place around al-Rifai near Qasar Sousah Square.

Supporters of Mr Assad were also staging large protests in the capital, and clashes erupted between the two sides.  In the central city of Hama, hundreds of people were said to have gathered on the city streets to chant “freedom”. In 1982, the Syrian army put down an uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama. Rights groups believe that tens of thousands of civilians were killed when large parts of the city were destroyed in the military assault. In Tall, witnesses quoted by the Reuters news agency said about 1,000 people had rallied to show their support for the Deraa protesters, and were chanting slogans denouncing members of the ruling Assad family. Demonstrations which ended in violence were also reported in the cities of Latakia and Homs. One person was killed in each place, the Associated Press news agency quoted an activist as saying. There were also protests in Banias and Dahel, AFP reported.

Worried Syrian regime offers promise of change

March 24, 2011

Associated Press= DARAA, Syria (AP) — The Syrian government pledged Thursday to consider lifting some of the Mideast’s most repressive laws in an attempt to stop a week-long uprising in a southern city from spreading and threatening its nearly 50-year rule. The promises were immediately rejected by many activists who called for demonstrations around the country on Friday in response to a crackdown that protesters say killed dozens of anti-government marchers in the city of Daraa. “We will not forget the martyrs of Daraa,” a resident told The Associated Press by telephone. “If they think this will silence us they are wrong.” The coming days will be a crucial test of the surge of popular discontent that has unseated autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt and threatens to push several others from power.

On one side in Syria stands a regime unafraid of using extreme violence to quash internal unrest. In one infamous example, it leveled entire sections of the city of Hama with artillery and bulldozers to put down an uprising by the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in 1982. Facing the regime is a loosely organized protest movement in the main city of southern Syria’s drought-parched agricultural heartland. Sheltering in Daraa’s Roman-era old city, the protesters have persisted through seven days of increasing violence by security forces, but have not inspired significant unrest in other parts of the country. “Even if the government can contain violence to Daraa for the time-being, protests will spread,” Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, wrote in a recent blog posting. “The wall of fear has broken.”

President Bashar Assad, a close ally of Iran and its regional proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, appears worried enough to promise increased freedoms for discontented citizens and increased pay and benefits for state workers — a familiar package of incentives offered by other nervous Arab regimes in recent weeks. “To those who claim they want freedom and dignity for the (Syrian) people, I say to them we have seen the example of Iraq, the million martyrs there and the loss of security there,” presidential adviser Buthaina Shaaban told reporters in the capital, Damascus, as she announced the promises of reform. Shaaban told reporters that the all-powerful Baath party would study ending a state of emergency that it put in place after taking power in 1963.

The emergency laws, which have been a feature of many Arab countries, allow people to be arrested without warrants and imprisoned without trial. Human rights groups say violations of other basic liberties are rife in Syria, with torture and abuse common in police stations, detention centers and prisons, and dissenters regularly imprisoned for years without due process. Syria’s state TV said later Thursday that Assad ordered the release of all detainees in connection with the unrest of the past few days.

Shortly afterward, Abdul-Karim Rihawi, who heads the Syrian Human Rights League, said authorities released several activists, writers and bloggers who were detained in different parts of Syria in an apparent response to events in Daraa. Rihawi said those released included Mazen Darwish, a journalist and activist, and writer Loay Hussein. Shaaban said the Baath Party Regional Command, the country’s top decision-making body, would draft a law to allow political parties besides the Baath, and loosen restrictions on media. It was also raising salaries for public servants by up to 30 percent, giving them health insurance, and looking at better ways to fight corruption, she said.

Syria unrest: Government pledges political reforms

March 24, 2011

Syrian leaders have pledged to introduce reforms to meet the demands of protesters, after days of violence in the southern city of Deraa. Officials promised to study the need for lifting the state of emergency, in place since 1963. The government also said it would bring to trial those suspected of killing several protesters in Deraa. President Bashar al-Assad later ordered the release of everyone arrested during the “recent events”, state media said. Presidential spokeswoman Bouthaina Shaaban blamed outside agitators for whipping up trouble, and denied that the government had ordered security forces to open fire on protesters. But she said this “did not mean mistakes had not been made”.

“We should not confuse the behaviour of an individual, and the desire and determination of President Bashar al-Assad to move Syria to more prosperity,” she told a news conference in Damascus. Relaxing restrictions? A committee would be set up to talk to “our brothers in Deraa” and bring to justice those responsible for killing protesters, Ms Shaaban said. She also said the government would raise workers’ wages, introduce health reforms, allow more political parties to compete in elections, relax media restrictions and establish a new mechanism for fighting corruption.

Ms Shaaban announced a similar package of reforms in 2005, but critics say her pledges were never enacted. Opposition groups reacted to the news conference immediately, telling Reuters news agency that the Deraa committee would do nothing to meet the aspirations of the people. Reuters reported that dissidents in Syria and in exile dismissed the reforms, calling for the immediate scrapping of the state of emergency and freeing of thousands of political prisoners.

Syrian crowds torch party HQ

March 24, 2011

Crowds set fire to a headquarters of the ruling Baath Party in the Syrian city of Deraa on Sunday, residents said, as the wave of unrest in the Arab world shook even one of its most authoritarian states. The demonstrators also set ablaze the main courts complex and two phone company branches. One of the firms, Syriatel, is owned by President Bashar al-Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf. “They burned the symbols of oppression and corruption,” an activist said. “The banks nearby were not touched.” Assad is facing the biggest challenge to his rule since he succeeded his late father, Hafez al-Assad, 11 years ago. He has sent government officials to try to placate Deraa but thousands rallied to demand an end to emergency law in the southern city, on the third consecutive day of protests against Syria’s ruling Baath Party.

“No, no to emergency law. We are a people infatuated with freedom,” marchers chanted, despite the arrival in Deraa of a government delegation to pay condolences to relatives of victims killed by security forces in demonstrations there this week. Security forces fired tear gas at the protesters. Around 40 people were taken to be treated for gas inhalation at the main Omari mosque in the old city, residents said. “The mosque is now a field hospital. The security forces know they cannot enter the old city without spilling more blood,” one resident said. Syria has been under emergency law since the Baath Party, which is headed by president Bashar al-Assad, took power 1963 and banned all opposition. The protesters were in control of the old quarters of Deraa by nightfall, with heavy security presence in the rest of the city, which is near the border with Jordan. Security forces opened fire on Friday on civilians taking part in a peaceful protest in Deraa demanding the release of 15 schoolchildren detained for writing protest graffiti, political freedoms and an end to corruption. Four people were killed.

An official statement said “infiltrators” claiming to be high ranking officers had been visiting security stations and asking security forces to fire at any suspicious gathering. Citizens should report anyone suspected of trying to fool the security apparatus “into using violence and live ammunition against any suspicious gathering”, the statement said. The government sought to calm discontent by promising to release immediately the 15 children, who had written slogans on walls inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The statement was a rare instance of Syria’s ruling hierarchy responding to popular pressure. Tens of people arrested on Friday have been released, but scores more were still in jail, activists said. On Saturday, thousands of mourners called for “revolution” at the funeral of two of the protesters. Officials later met Deraa notables who presented then with a list of demands. It included the release of political prisoners, dismantling of secret police headquarters in Deraa, dismissal of the governor, public trial for those responsible for the killings and scrapping of regulations requiring permission from the secret police to sell and buy property.

Non-violent protests have challenged the Baath Party’s authority this month, with the largest protests in Deraa drawing thousands of people. A silent protest in Damascus by 150 people this week demanded the release of thousands of political prisoners. At least one activist from Deraa, Diana al-Jawabra, took part in the protest. She was arrested on charges of weakening national morale, along with 32 other protesters, a lawyer said. Jawabra, who is from a prominent family, was campaigning for the release of the 15 schoolchildren from her home city. Another woman from Deraa, physician Aisha Aba Zeid, was arrested three weeks ago for airing a political opinion on the internet. Residents say the two arrests helped fuel the protests in Deraa, a conservative tribal region. Graffiti have appeared on school walls and grain silos in Deraa with phrases such as “the people want the overthrow of the regime” — the slogan that became the rallying cry of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions. Authorities responded by increasing secret police patrols and asking staff at schools and public departments to man their premises around the clock and by requiring IDs and registration for buyers of paint and spray cans. “These measures only increased popular resentment,” one Deraa resident said.

Reuters

March 23, 2011

Syrian police launched an assault on a neighbourhood sheltering anti-government protesters, fatally shooting at least nine in an operation that lasted nearly 24 hours, witnesses said. At least six were said to have been killed in an early morning attack on the al-Omari mosque in the southern agricultural city of Deraa, where protesters have taken to the streets to calls for reform and political freedoms. An activist in contact with people in the city said police shot three other protesters in the city centre after dusk. Inspired by the wave of pro-democracy protests around the region, the uprising in Deraa and at least four villages nearby has become the biggest domestic challenge since the 1970s to the Syrian government, one of the most repressive in the Middle East. Security forces have responded with water cannon, teargas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. The total death toll now stands at 16.

Democracy activists used social-networking sites to call for massive demonstrations across the country on Friday, a day they dubbed Dignity Friday. An activist in Damascus in contact with people in Deraa said six had died in the raid on the mosque. A witness in the city said five people had been killed, including a woman who looked out of her window to see what was happening during the operation, which began after midnight and lasted for about three hours. Heavy shooting rattled the city until at least the early afternoon, when bursts of semi-automatic gunfire could be heard echoing in its old centre. State TV said an “armed gang” attacked an ambulance and security forces killed four attackers and wounded others and was chasing others who fled. It denied security forces had stormed the mosque, but also showed footage of guns, AK47s, hand grenades, ammunition and money it said had been seized from inside.

Mobile phone connections to the city were cut and checkpoints throughout Deraa were manned by soldiers in camouflage uniforms and plainclothes security agents with rifles. Anti-terrorism police wearing dark blue uniforms were also on the streets. The witness said hundreds of anti-terrorism police had surrounded the mosque. The unrest started with the arrest last week of a group of students who sprayed anti-government graffiti on walls in Deraa.

‘Many dead’ in Syrian crackdown

March 23, 2011

Human rights activists say at least 13 people have been killed in the Syrian town of Daraa, the focalpoint of a week of anti-government protests. Activists and residents said security forces opened fire on protesters outside the Omari mosque early Wednesday, after hundreds of people had gathered overnight to prevent police from storming it, and that shooting had continued sporadically over the course of the day. A rights activist also told AFP news agency that security forces had opened fire on mourners attending the funeral of those killed in Daraa. Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin, reporting from Damascus, said that fighting broke out when residents from other towns clashed with security forces as they tried to enter Daraa to help residents there. A youth activist in the Syrian capital, who remains anonymous, told Al Jazeera that his contacts in Daraa said that “dozens of people” had died in clashes. “Many there want to take down the government, and want more freedoms.” he said.

Our correspondent said there was a heavy security presence in Daraa, with the army, anti-terror police and riot police all deployed in the city. Journalists are not being allowed to visit the city, and several of those who attempted to do so last night had their equipment confiscated by authorities. Checkpoints have been set up by security forces at all entries to the city. Syria’s state-run television station reported that an “armed gang” attacked an ambulance at the Omari mosque, killing four people. The victims were a doctor, a paramedic, a policeman and the ambulance driver, according to SANA. The security forces who were near the area intervened, hitting some and arresting others,” the report said, without elaborating. Later in the day, state television showed what it said were pictures of a weapons stockpile inside the Omari mosque, including pistols, shotguns, grenades and ammunition.

The violence was condemned by Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, who called for “a transparent investigation into the killings”. A spokesman for the US state department said Washington was alarmed by the situation and urged Syrian authorities to “exercise restraint and to refrain from violence”. “We are deeply concerned by the Syrian government’s use of violence, intimidation and arbitrary arrests to hinder the ability of its people to freely exercise their universal rights. We condemn these actions,” said Mark Toner. On Tuesday, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged Syrian authorities to halt the excessive use of force. “The government should carry out an independent, transparent and effective investigation into the killings of the six protesters during the events of 18 and 20 March,” Rupert Colville, a spokesman for Pillay, said on Tuesday. “We are greatly concerned by the recent killings of protesters in Syria and reiterate the need to put an immediate halt to the excessive use of force against peaceful protesters, especially the use of live ammunition.” Colville said that the use of excessive force was a “clear violation of international law” and that perpetrators could be prosecuted.

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