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Syrian forces kill 19 as protests erupt nationwide

Syria, despite warnings from Turkey and the U.S. to stop military operations against unarmed civilians, continues its campaign against dissent, activists say.

August 13, 2011|By Ellen Knickmeyer and Alexandra Sandels, Los Angeles Times
  • Syrians living in Turkey hold a protest against the President Bashar Assad after Friday prayers in Istanbul.
Syrians living in Turkey hold a protest against the President Bashar Assad… (Osman Orsal, Reuters )

Reporting from Beirut — Syrian forces met worshipers emerging from Friday prayers with volleys of gunfire, killing at least 19 people according to activists, despite tough warnings from neighboring Turkey, the United States and other countries to stop its crackdown on civilian protesters.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged countries doing business with Syria to "get on the right side of history" and condemn the violence, but again stopped short of calling for President Bashar Assad to go. Clinton said Thursday that the United States wanted other countries, particularly Syrian trade partners China and India, to join in before Washington would call for Assad's departure.

Protests against Assad's government persisted Friday, even in Hama and Dair Alzour, cities that have been targets of offensives during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

In Dair Alzour, an eastern town near the border with Iraq, troops surrounded mosques and opened fire when worshipers emerged after midday prayers to demonstrate, one resident said by telephone.

"Directly after they came out of the mosques, the security forces rushed toward the demonstrations and shot live ammunition at them," said the resident, who identified himself only as Abdullah for fear of retaliation.

Security forces had set fire to bakeries in the city, forcing civilians to roam wide distances in search of bread, the resident said. He said three people were killed in Friday's violence in the city.

In suburbs of Damascus, the capital, buses loaded with troops were waiting when worshipers ended dawn and midday prayers, traditionally the starting point for protests, residents said.

Dramatic video reportedly shot Friday in the Damascus suburb of Harasta showed a chaotic scene as heavy, close gunfire targeted young marchers. "Whatever happens, we will kneel down only before God," the man making the video cried hoarsely as he and his companions scattered, crouching under the intense assault.

Four people were fatally shot in the Damascus suburb of Duma, one of them a woman. A pregnant woman was killed when Syrian tanks and troops launched a dawn raid against the town of Khan Shaykhun not far from the border with Turkey. Security forces also killed four people in Aleppo, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a coalition of opposition groups. Deaths also were reported in Hama and Homs.

Syria's increasing use of military force has failed to stop the demonstrations. However, the protests, in their fifth month, also have failed to fully end the support of Assad's core constituencies, including his Alawite community, security forces, and much of the business class of the country's Sunni Muslim majority.

Friday's biggest protests appeared to have been in the Damascus suburbs and in the coastal city of Latakia, where thousands of protesters unfurled a huge Syrian flag. Video on the Internet showed young men running through a poor neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city and a center of support for Assad, to bursts of gunfire.

The bloodshed nationwide Friday was an affront to Turkey, Syria's more powerful and wealthier neighbor, which had sent its foreign minister to Damascus this week to issue what officials said was a last warning for Assad to stop the violence.

Turkey's diplomatic move "would actually qualify as an ultimatum ... for Assad to reexamine his stance and his policy," Sinan Ulgen, an analyst and former Turkish diplomat, said by telephone Friday.

Turkish diplomats say Assad complained to the Turks that he could not fully control his forces, and asked for time to wind down his offensive, Mensur Akgun, head of foreign policy at the independent think-tank Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, said by telephone.

As a result, Turkish officials probably would give Assad a week or two before beginning any tougher measures against his regime, Akgun said. Turkish officials are unlikely to trust in Syria's good intentions, but have few alternatives, he said.

Turkey's Zaman newspaper reported Friday that the Turkish military had called up recently retired officers and sent many to provinces along the frontier with Syria. The border area has been the scene of repeated Syrian military offensives that Turkey says have pushed more than 7,000 Syrians into refugee camps just inside Turkey.

Syria's military is blocking roads leading to Turkey, preventing people from fleeing, Omar Miqdad, a Syrian activist who has taken refuge in Turkey, said by telephone.

Knickmeyer and Sandels are special correspondents. A special correspondent in Damascus contributed to this report.

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