Syrian Troops Open Fire on Protesters in Several Cities
Tens of thousands of demonstrators in the southern city of
It was the most serious challenge to 40 years of repressive rule by the Assad family since 1982, when the president at the time, Hafez al-Assad, massacred at least 10,000 protesters in
Human rights groups said that since protests began seven days ago in the south, 38 people had been killed by government forces — and it appeared that many more were killed on Friday. Precise details were hard to obtain because the government sealed off the area to reporters and would not let foreign news media into the country.
“Syria’s security forces are showing the same cruel disregard for protesters’ lives as their counterparts in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
The new round of protests and bloodshed came one day after the Syrian government tried to appease an increasingly angry popular revolt with talk of improved political freedoms and promises of restraint.
Instead, it unleashed its forces, firing on peaceful demonstrators in and near Dara’a, according to a witness. There were reports of security forces firing on civilians in cities around the country, as well. For the first time since the protests began, crowds called for the downfall of the government and in one instance tore down a billboard-size photo of
Ahmed Sayasna, the imam of the Omari mosque in Dara’a, said the violence began after crowds set a fire under a statue of former President Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father. Speaking by telephone, Mr. Sayasna said thousands of people gathered near the statue after Friday Prayer when officers from Syria’s central security forces lobbed tear gas canisters and opened fire with live ammunition. He said about 20 people were killed, and many more wounded.
In Sanamayn, a city of 27,000 people about 40 miles north of Dara’a, a video posted on YouTube showed at least seven bloodied bodies lying on stretchers, at least three clearly with gunshot wounds. Mr. Sayasna said 10 to 15 people were killed there, while residents told The Associated Press that as many as 20 people had been killed. These figures could not be independently confirmed. In the capital,
In Latakia, President Assad’s hometown, two people died as protesters faced off against pro-government supporters, a witness said. A video posted on YouTube shows the body of a young man with a bullet wound being carried by protesters. There were reports of scattered protests and scores of arrests in several other cities.
On Thursday, a longtime minister and adviser to the president, Bouthaina Shaaban, appeared to edge close to an apology for the deaths, insisting that the president had ordered security forces not to fire. Ms. Shaaban then laid out what she framed as concessions, saying that the government promised to consider lifting a state of emergency in place for decades and would consider more political freedoms — offerings that were dismissed out of hand by the public because they had been put forth before, in 2005, and never carried out.
President Assad “doesn’t want the bloodshed at all, and I witnessed his directives on not using live bullets whatever the circumstances as he is keen on every citizen,” Ms. Shaaban said.
“This doesn’t mean that there are no mistakes or practices which were not unsatisfactory and not up to the required level,” she said.
Less than 24 hours later, witnesses reported that live fire was again turned on unarmed protesters.
“This is exactly what has been happening around the Arab world,” said Ayman Abdel Nour, a Syrian opposition activist who is living in self-imposed exiled in the
Mr. Sayasna, the imam in Dara’a, whose prominence in the community allows him to speak openly, unlike others there, said
Syria’s emergency law, in place since the Baath Party took power in 1963, has long been a focus of critics, who say it grants the government license to jail anyone with little pretext.
Syria has few resources, but a strategic location bordering Iraq, Israel, Turkey,
The cascading events in Syria bear a remarkable resemblance to the course taken in other nations in the Arab world, where a relatively small incident — in this case the arrest of children who scrawled graffiti
“There’s a real change in attitude from a couple of months ago, when Syrians were watching this take place in other countries,” said one Western diplomat in
The Syrian government “is sending a very mixed message — holding out carrots like the concessions announced on Thursday, and then beating and arresting and even opening fire on protesters,” the diplomat said. “I assume that indicates a lack of agreement or coordination in the government.”
Karim Émile Bitar, a researcher at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris, said
The killings in
“These minority regimes are galvanized against defections and splitting,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a
Sectarian tensions did not initially motivate this conflict. But they have begun to emerge. Mr. Tabler and Joshua M. Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said the demonstrators had started chanting
That, they said, is a direct reference to the Alawite faith of the leadership.
“What makes this all surprising at this point is this is an area of
The government had initially insisted that the protests and deaths were the work of criminals brought across the border from
And yet, even government supporters appeared taken aback by the decision to use lethal force. “The government believes we have to give people more freedom,” said Muhammad Habash, a moderate Islamist cleric and member of Parliament. But he added
Nadim Audi contributed reporting from Cairo, and Robert F. Worth from Dubai,
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs