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Syria fires on protesters despite international pressure

A day after President Obama and other western leaders called on Syrian Bashar Assad to step down, security forces fire on demonstrators. Activists say 12 are dead nationwide.

August 19, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi and Alexandra Sandels | Los Angeles Times
  • Protesters wearing masks in the color of the Syrian flag in the coastal city of Jableh call for President Bashar Assad to leave office in this screen grab from purported video footage of a demonstration on Friday.
Protesters wearing masks in the color of the Syrian flag in the coastal city…

Reporting from Beirut — Large anti-government protests that erupted throughout Syria on Friday were met with gunfire a day after the United States and its allies stepped up international pressure on the regime of President Bashar Assad by calling upon him to step aside for grossly violating Syrians' human rights.

According to video footage posted to the Internet and witness accounts, large, boisterous and peaceful protests after Friday prayers erupted even in areas that have come under increasingly violent attacks in recent weeks, which have coincided with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

On a day dubbed "The promise of victory" by activists, protesters took to the streets in or near Homs and Hama as well as the suburbs of Damascus, though the demonstrations did not appear to be as large as some Friday protests in recent weeks.

Security forces responded with gunfire, killing at least 12 nationwide, according to witnesses and activists, despite a pledge Assad reportedly made to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to stop deploying military power against protesters.

Syrian security forces and allied militias have killed more than 2,000 Syrians in a five-month campaign to crush a movement aiming to topple the Assad family's decades-old regime. A U.N. report published Thursday accused Syrian security forces of summarily executing detainees, opening fire with machine guns and helicopters against unarmed crowds of demonstrators and torturing detainees, including children.

It also alleged that soldiers who refused orders to kill were themselves executed. The case may be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague as early as next week.

In addition to calls Thursday by President Obama and other Western leaders for Assad to leave office, Washington tightened sanctions on the regime and European leaders are discussing new economic measures, including a possible sanction on Syrian energy firms.

Switzerland and Tunisia, where the wave of uprisings against Arab autocrats began nine months ago, this week joined the list of countries recalling their ambassadors in Syria.

But neither Assad's promises nor the international pressure has curbed security forces' violent drive to crush a determined protest movement. In Dair Alzour, the far eastern Syrian city under siege for weeks, thousands of demonstrators in five or six districts and in outlying areas were confronted by plainclothes shabiha militiamen and army troops, who opened fire on them, according to an activist reached by phone.

"Before the launching of the demonstrations, there were more than 2,000 shabiha, security and army members," said the activist, who spoke on condition he not be named. "They started going toward demonstrations and fired at them, live gunfire."

An activist in Latakia, the northwestern coastal city under siege since last week, said parts of the city remained under a crushing lockdown by security forces rampaging through neighborhoods. "Electricity and water have been cut in the Ramel area," he said, asking that he not be identified by name.

"Security forces are breaking into houses and shops and stealing things. The situation is scary. There are armed militiamen on the streets in some areas in the city. Some are wearing black, some are wearing regular clothes."

According to the activist network Local Coordinating Committees, three soldiers were shot dead Friday when they refused to open fire on demonstrators in the Inkhel district of Dara, the province where the uprising began in March.

The activists also reported "many injuries" among protesters who were shot at in the streets of Aleppo, where the anti-government movement appears to be gaining momentum.

The day's violence, the activist in Dair Alzour said, was expected, a consequence of the international attention. "They responded harshly because of the pressures," he said. "They're playing their last card. Now with this international action, they're ready to crush the demonstrations at any price."

daragahi@latimes.com

Sandels is a special correspondent.

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