Syrian tanks target border towns as hundreds are arrested

Protests mount despite government-sponsored National Dialogue consultations as Damascus regime continues to insist it is facing an armed revolt.

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DAMASCUS // Troops backed by armoured units and helicopters were ready to strike at towns on the eastern and western edges of Syria yesterday, where the regime said it faced an armed revolt.

Tanks surrounded Abu Kamal on the Syria-Iraq border, a city that appears to have been slipping out of government control, with large-scale protests and reports of significant defections by locally based security units.

The pro-government daily newspaper Al Watan said: "The situation … is explosive, so the army is preparing to intervene. The authorities fear an armed revolt in this border town where [insurgents] can easily find logistical and political support."

Troops also moved into Zabadani, a tourist resort on the mountainous western border with Lebanon where there have also been persistent anti-regime demonstrations, which residents admit have included acts of violence, including drive-by shootings targeting government buildings.

Security forces also swept into Qatana, a southern suburb of Damascus and another protest hub, arresting hundreds of suspected dissidents yesterday. Among them was the writer Ali Abdullah, 61, recently freed after four years in jail for political activism.

The increasing tempo of security operations comes a week after the opening of government-sponsored National Dialogue consultations, which the authorities have said negates the need for street protests or other opposition meetings.

"It is no coincidence that extra security measures are now under way," said Anwar al Bunni, a civil-rights lawyer. "The authorities believe their national dialogue initiative covers everything, so anything outside that will be treated as 'destructive elements' and will be dealt with accordingly."

As well as marking the start of the uprising's fifth month, Friday was the bloodiest single day in Damascus, with at least 16 people killed and scores wounded.

The crackdown starkly underlined the limits of permissible dissent, as security forces shot demonstrators near the venue of a planned opposition conference.

The meeting, billed as a National Salvation Council and due to take place in a wedding hall on Saturday, would have broken significant new ground for the opposition.

Leading activists were to openly discuss a future without the president, Bashar Al Assad, the first time that would have happened in a public forum inside the country.

In addition, members of Local Coordination Committees (LCCs), the driving force behind growing street protests, were due to participate - another first for a public meeting.

The conference was also to feature a live internet link with exiled dissidents gathering simultaneously in Istanbul, in an effort to unite and organise Syria's disparate opposition groups.

It proved too much for the decades-old autocratic Assad regime to tolerate, say dissidents and independent analysts.

"The Qaboun meeting posed a real threat to the regime's hold on power so they would not let it go ahead," one leading dissident said.

The meeting, scheduled to start at 11am on Saturday in Qaboun, a working-class district in north-eastern Damascus where there have been almost daily protests, was cancelled after Friday's shootings, with organisers saying they wanted to avoid further bloodshed. Instead, the conference in neighbouring Turkey went ahead on its own.

Qaboun residents said there were more than 10,000 demonstrators in the streets after Friday prayers, with a festival-like atmosphere to the now routine pro-democracy rally.

"It was fine, and then two coaches loaded with armed men turned up, started shooting and then left again," said one Qaboun resident. "It was a massacre, it was all over in three minutes." According to human rights monitors, 16 people were fatally shot, with as many as 100 others wounded in the gunfire.

Officials denied the killings were the work of security units, and blamed unknown armed groups, as they have done for all of the 1,400 plus civilians who have died since the uprising began in March.

That explanation was dismissed by Qaboun residents, who said uniformed security officers and soldiers in the area let the buses carrying the gunmen through their cordon and simply watched as the killing took place.

"It was a clear message from the authorities," said one independent analyst. "In a sense this was the first real opposition meeting in Syria and it was hit very hard."

Traditional boundaries concerning criticism of the ruling elite have been shifting in the face of protests, with once taboo subjects now open for discussion. On June 27, opposition figures met at the Semiramis hotel in central Damascus and talked about a transition to democracy, criticising the security forces and calling for political prisoners to be freed.

However, they were intellectuals, not politicians with mass grassroots support; they stressed their independence from outside influences; and, most importantly they held open the prospect of reform taking place under the current regime.

Ostensibly at least, that agenda is close to the authorities' own of a "comprehensive reform process, led by President Al Assad".

"The Semiramis meeting was acceptable because it happened under the umbrella of dialogue," said one dissident, who was due to participate in the Qaboun conference.

"They were saying, 'if the regime makes concessions, we can talk'. The Qaboun meeting was different, it was going to say, 'No reform under this regime, we must look past it to the future'."

Some of the Qaboun meeting's organisers had talked of establishing a shadow government, ready to step in and take the reigns of power in the event of a regime collapse. "In hindsight, that was obviously going too far, too fast, it over-reached itself," said the dissident, who had planned to take part.

Protests have continued to grow and spread geographically despite repeated security crackdowns, a trend that Qaboun has mirrored.

Fewer than 100 people took part in the first demonstrations there four months ago. On Friday, 15,000 people turned out to protest and on Saturday more than 60,000 participated in a protesters' funeral marche.

"The regime is still using the security solution, it doesn't seem to realise or care that it is pouring fuel on the fire, this will only lead to even bigger demonstrations," said one dissident.