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Syria protesters march again despite crackdown

Hundreds turn out for a fifth day in Dara demanding political freedoms. Syrian security forces are blamed in the deaths of at least five people in recent days during a crackdown on demonstrations.

March 22, 2011|By Garrett Therolf and Meris Lutz, Los Angeles Times
  • Antigovernment protesters rally near the Omari mosque in Dara, the fifth consecutive day of demonstrations in the southern Syrian city.
Antigovernment protesters rally near the Omari mosque in Dara, the fifth… (Reuters )

Reporting from Cairo and Beirut — Protesters marched in the southern Syrian city of Dara on Tuesday, pressing their demands for political freedoms for a fifth day despite a security crackdown.

Some witnesses said the protesters numbered in the hundreds; others said thousands took part. But it was clear that the country's burgeoning protest movement of the last week was the largest of President Bashar Assad's 11-year-rule.

Tuesday's demonstration once again stopped short of calling for Assad's ouster, pushing instead for the release of jailed political dissidents and an end to the secret police organization, which is headed in Dara by the president's cousin.

Syria has been under emergency law since the Baath Party took power in a 1963 coup, banning any opposition. The party headquarters in Dara was set ablaze Sunday, witnesses said.

The demonstrations Tuesday were centered around the Omari mosque, which has become a refuge for those wounded in a violent crackdown by security forces who used tear gas and live ammunition. The security forces were blamed in the deaths of at least six people, drawing a rebuke from the White House.

"Those responsible for the violence over the weekend must be held accountable," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said Monday. "The United States stands for a set of universal rights, including the freedom of expression and assembly, and believes that governments, including the Syrian government, must address the legitimate aspirations of their people."

Those killed included Ali Ghassab al-Mahamid, a doctor from a prominent Deraa family who went to the Omari mosque in the city's old quarter to help victims of the attack, which occurred just after midnight, said the residents, declining to be named, Reuters reported. It was not immediately clear whether the protesters had any weapons.

A human rights activist in the Syrian capital, Damascus, who is in touch with the protesters said Tuesday that the crackdown had backfired. "People in the street got organized when their children were killed and beaten," said the activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.

Video posted online appeared to show sporadic demonstrations throughout Syria over the last week, but state-imposed limitations on media have made such events difficult to cover or confirm. On Tuesday, a planned sit-in at the Palace of Justice in Damascus was thwarted when a heavy security presence swept through, a second human rights activist told The Times.

The president's father and predecessor, the late Hafez Assad, waged a ruthless campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and other dissidents in the 1980s, leaving a legacy of fear among would-be opposition activists.

The National Organization for Human Rights in Syria on Tuesday published the names of at least 90 people who had been arrested in the recent unrest, including Muhammad Deebo, a Syrian writer and journalist for the Jordanian newspaper Al Dustour.

Times staff writer Therolf reported from Cairo and special correspondent Lutz from Beirut. A special correspondent in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

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