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Syria protests erupt despite government warnings

In spite of edicts from the government against any civil disobedience, protesters across the country strike out in a 'Friday of Rage' demonstration.

April 29, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi and Meris Lutz, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Beirut — Fresh protests erupted in Syrian cities and towns after weekly Muslim prayer sermons Friday despite dire warnings by security officials and violent suppression of protests by the armed forces.

Amateur video posted to the Internet showed protests in the Lebanese border city of Homs, the third largest, the coastal city of Baniyas, Deir Azour in the country's east, the northwestern town of Kafr Zita and southern town of Jassem, near the embattled flashpoint city of Jassem. Activists also reported protests in the suburbs of Damascus and the coastal city of Lattakia, where there were reports of gunfire.

"With our souls, with our blood we sacrifice for you, Dara," protesters called out in the far eastern ethnic Kurdish city of Qamishli, referring to the embattled southern city under seige by the armed forces of ruler Bashar Assad.

Syrian opposition activists had called for a nationwide "Friday of Rage" after noon prayers to protest Assad's authoritarian regime and its violent crackdown on democracy advocates. Syrian security officials were poised to suppress any signs of civil disobedience. Video posted on the Internet appeared to show government forces opening fire on a crowd in Homs, Syria's third-largest city, felling several people. The video was uploaded Thursday but could not be confirmed.

"The Interior Ministry urges citizens to actively participate in boosting stability and security and helping concerned authorities carry out their duties to achieve this national goal by refraining from staging any rallies, demonstrations, or sit-ins under any title," said a statement broadcast on Syrian state television.

The Syrian regime's violence against peaceful protesters has drawn international condemnation and inspired disgust by even some of Assad's stalwarts. About 200 people have resigned from the Baath Party in the last several days to protest the government's violent response to the unrest. Most of the resignations came from party members in the cities of Dara and Baniyas, which have been opposition hot spots.

"My resignation was a message and duty," former party member Mohammad Sheghri, in Baniyas, said in a telephone interview. "Security officials clearly abused peaceful and unarmed protesters. This ruthless violation and oppression of citizens has never been something the Baath Party stood for."

There were also continuing reports of dissent within the armed forces. A Dara resident said an entire army unit, either a division or brigade, had broken off and was hiding among the people.

His claim could not be verified. Syrian state media Thursday quoted an unnamed military official dismissing such reports as a "media distortion," affirming the unity of the armed forces in the face of "conspiracies."

Access to the protest sites has largely been denied to foreign journalists.

The pro-democracy movement erupted in Dara six weeks ago after the arrest and torture of a group of teenagers accused of writing political graffiti opposing Assad's regime. It soon spread across the country.

The Dara resident, reached Thursday by satellite phone, said 42 people had been killed by security forces in the city since Monday, when the army's 4th Armored Division, led by Assad's brother Maher, stormed the city. Residents described the military assault as a "massacre" and complained of acute shortages of food and fuel.

"They are shelling us from the south," said the resident, who requested anonymity due to safety concerns. "We have no milk, no gas, no light, no electricity; they have cut everything."

He said the army and shabiha, plainclothes pro-government gunmen who have played a central role in the crackdown, filled the streets.

One witness, Mohamad Homsi, told the pan-Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera that three women who were caught bringing milk for children into the city were forced to kiss the feet of the soldiers before they were allowed to pass.

"Our children are dying of hunger," Homsi said on air shortly before the station announced that it had suspended operations in Syria in response to "restrictions and attacks on its staff."

The United Nations Human Rights Council is expected to hold an emergency session Friday to draft a resolution calling on the Syrian government and its supporters to cease the use of violence against protesters. Syrian rights organization Sawasiah reported thousands arrested and more than 500 civilians killed so far, according to Reuters news agency.

Even Syria's former allies Turkey and Iran appear to be growing uncomfortable with the crackdown. Istanbul, Turkey, has hosted a series of high-profile meetings of the Syrian opposition, and a group of prominent poets and writers from around the region Thursday issued a statement from there condemning the "massacres committed by the Syrian regime against the unarmed civilians."

In another sign that it is less than pleased with its neighbor, Turkey also sent a delegation headed by National Intelligence Agency Undersecretary Hakan Fidan and State Planning Organization Undersecretary Kemal Madenoglu to Damascus, the Syrian capital, on Thursday to discuss the "recent incidents," Turkey's semiofficial Anatolia news agency reported.

Turkey and Syria maintain healthy trade and diplomatic relations and sending security and trade officials could be seen as a veiled warning to Syria.

Like authoritarian rulers facing popular uprisings in Egypt and Libya, Assad's regime stalwarts blame Islamic extremists and unspecified "armed groups" for stirring up trouble and have launched an unrelenting propaganda campaign depicting the protesters as foreign dupes.

daragahi@latimes.com

Lutz is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Roula Hajjar contributed to this report.

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