Syrians continue to protest despite heavy security, more deaths

Syrians report 19 deaths and heavy security throughout the country, but protesters continue to stage large demonstrations.

Damascus // Syrian forces killed at least 19 protesters yesterday, activists said, despite Bashar Al Assad's assurance to the UN chief Ban Ki-moon that the security crackdown was over.

The Syrian president spoke to Mr Moon by telephone on Thursday and, according to the UN, said "the military and police operations had stopped".

Most of the deaths yesterday took place in the southern Houran plain, according to human rights groups, near the city of Deraa, where the first mass demonstrations - and first killings by security forces - occurred on March 18.

An 11-year-old and a 72-year-old were among those killed, activists said. Residents and activists reported heavy security throughout the country, with army units still deployed in volatile areas.

Some neighbourhoods were sealed off. Busloads of security agents were stationed near mosques, and blocked public squares.

Despite that, thousands of protesters staged rallies, including demonstrations in Hama, Deir Ezzor and Homs, all areas where there have been military operations during a Ramadan offensive. Protests also took place in Damascus and Aleppo.

Sana, Syria's official news agency, gave a different account of yesterday's events, reporting one civilian death and seven casualties and one death among security officers.

It blamed "armed groups" which it says have killed more than 400 police and soldiers since March.

However, the United Nation's human rights agency said there was "reliable corroborative evidence" of security forces using a shoot-to-kill policy against civilian protesters, and the European Union said new sanctions were being prepared targeting Syria's small but economically critical oil sector.

The continued international pressure followed Thursday's call by the United States and Europe for the Syrian president to step down. A long delayed UN human rights mission is due to begin in Syria tomorrow as officials seek to investigate claims of crimes against humanity, including torture and summary executions by Syrian security forces. At least 1,900 civilians have been killed since the uprising began, a UN human rights report published on Thursday said.

"It was essential for the protests to continue, to show the regime that it has not finished and to again show the true face of this regime to the world," said one anti-government campaigner in Damascus yesterday.

"After promises were given to the UN that the security solution was over, these latest killings are clear evidence that nothing this regime says can be trusted. That message will not be lost on Syrians and it will not be lost on the international community."

However, Syria's allies Russia and Turkey - both increasingly critical of Damascus - declined to join in calls for Mr Al Assad to quit.

Ankara, which has accused the Syrian authorities of "savagery" over their handling of the uprising, said it was too early to make such a demand with Mr Al Assad still commanding significant support from ordinary Syrians.

In the absence of opinion polls, it is impossible to know how many of Syria's 23 million people back the protesters and how many continue to side with the authorities. Anecdotally the silent majority is fearful of the chaos that could engulf the country if the autocratic regime collapses after more than four decades of power.

Moscow also tempered its earlier warnings that the Syrian leader would face a "sad fate" if he failed to implement real reforms by saying he should be given a chance to make those changes.

A Russian foreign ministry statement said Mr Al Assad needed "sufficient time to implement the declared large-scale programme of social, political and economic reforms".

There was speculation in Syria yesterday that Mr Al Assad would appear on television in the coming week, in what would be a fourth address to the nation since the start of the uprising.

He has promised comprehensive political reforms that regime officials say will make Syria a beacon of democracy by the end of the year. Analysts have suggested October as a possible date for parliamentary elections.

The International Committee for the Red Cross also said yesterday it was on the verge of getting permission to visit detention centres in Syria. If that access were granted, it would be the first time independent observers could assess conditions in the country.

More than 10,000 people have been arrested during the uprising, and rights monitors say factories and sports grounds have been turned into holding areas for prisoners.

An independent Syrian political analyst said the regime was struggling to come up with a coherent policy in the face of the stubborn protests and growing international pressure.

"It has been five months of protests and the decision-making system is in chaos. They don't know how to solve this. They have lost their wisdom," he said.

 

psands@thenational.ae

Published: August 20, 2011 04:00 AM

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