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Syria protesters defy Bashar Assad; troops kill 29

Syrian security forces seem unaffected by increasing international pressure over the violent crackdown. Activists say three soldiers were killed when they refused to open fire on protesters.

August 20, 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 — Protesters throughout Syria joined in large, boisterous and peaceful rallies Friday, defying a bloody government crackdown that continued despite international calls the day before for the ouster of President Bashar Assad.

Security forces loyal to Assad shrugged off the mounting international pressure, killing at least 29 people and laying siege to several opposition strongholds. The southern province of Dara, where the uprising began after the detention and alleged torture of a group of teenagers accused of writing graffiti, bore the brunt of the violence, with security forces allegedly killing 15 people, including two children, according to activists collecting names and accounts.

According to Local Coordinating Committees, an activist network, three soldiers were also shot to death in the province when they refused to open fire on demonstrators in the town of Inkhel.

The latest round of confrontations came a day after the United States and its chief European allies called on Assad to step down for what they termed gross violations of human rights, and the continuing crackdown suggests how little leverage the international community has over a regime that has apparently grown accustomed to its pariah status.

Washington also tightened sanctions on Syria, and European leaders were discussing new economic measures, including a possible sanction on Syrian energy firms. Tunisia, where the wave of uprisings against Arab autocrats began nine months ago, and Switzerland this week joined the list of countries recalling their ambassadors to Syria.

But Friday also showed the resolve of a protest movement that has grown geographically and found ever more creative ways to challenge Assad. "Bye, bye, Bashar!" protesters taunted in English as they held up their shoes — a grave insult to the president in a Muslim culture — in the city of Homs, according to video on the Internet.

On a day dubbed "The Promise of Victory" by activists, protesters gathered even in areas that have come under attack by security forces. Security forces responded with gunfire, according to witnesses and activists, despite assurances Assad reportedly made to a United Nations envoy this week that the crackdown had ended.

In one video clip, young men can be seen dodging gunfire and running down an alleyway in the Damascus suburb of Harasta. "Go away Bashar," a man says, amid the hail of bullets. "You stopped the military operations, you dog?"

Security forces and militias have killed more than 2,000 Syrians in a five-month campaign to crush the movement aimed at toppling the Assad family's decades-old regime, according to activists and international observers.

A U.N. report published Thursday accuses secret police and troops of summarily executing detainees, opening fire on unarmed demonstrators with machine guns and helicopters and torturing detainees, including children. It also alleges that soldiers who refused orders to kill were executed.

International complaints about the violence by authorities could be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague as early as next week.

In Dair Alzour, a far eastern region under siege for weeks, thousands of demonstrators in five or six districts and in outlying areas were confronted by troops and plainclothes militiamen, known as shabiha, 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 requested anonymity. "They started going toward demonstrators and fired at them, live gunfire."

An activist in Latakia said parts of that northwestern coastal city remained under lockdown by security forces. The activist said electricity and water had been cut in the Ramel area, which includes a Palestinian refugee camp that became the focus of violence in the city.

"Security forces are breaking into houses and shops and stealing things," he said, asking that he not be named. "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."

A spokesman for the United Nations agency that oversees the refugee camp said 6,000 of the 7,500 residents displaced by the violence had been located, many of them traumatized and in need of emergency money for food and medicine.

"The refugees are too frightened to return to their homes there and are not returning," Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, said in a statement. "UNRWA has not had access; draw your own conclusions about what that means about the security situation there and the state of the camp."

The day's violence, the activist in Dair Alzour said, was expected given the international attention to the actions of Syrian authorities.

"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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