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Protesters march again in Syria

Demonstrators in several cities call for greater political freedom. President Bashar Assad's forces fire on a crowd, killing several.

March 27, 2011|By Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times
  • In this still image taken from amateur video, protesters deface a giant poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad on Friday in Dara.
In this still image taken from amateur video, protesters deface a giant… (Reuters TV, Reuters )

Reporting from Cairo — Syria's long-entrenched government remained under threat Saturday as protesters marched again in several cities for greater political freedom. Setting fire to buildings in at least two cities, they rejected conciliatory words from spokespeople for President Bashar Assad as his forces continued to shoot unarmed civilians.

In the small seaside city of Latakia, about 300 protesters burned tires and attacked storefronts to press for the removal of an emergency law in place since 1963, used by the government's secret police to detain anyone without trial.

A building used by Assad's ruling Baath Party was burned, and security forces responded with gunfire, killing several people and wounding 70, witnesses said.

Elsewhere, the protests Saturday were significantly smaller than on the previous day, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets across Syria and security forces killed more than 40 people, according to human rights activists.

Also Saturday, anthems lauding Assad blared from buses throughout Damascus, the capital. The government removed many of the security forces from Dara, the southern city that has been the epicenter of unrest in the last week, and released 260 political detainees. But protesters said their core concerns remained.

Syrian state television portrayed the violence as the work of common criminals and said 100 people had sought medical treatment, most of them police officers.

"That may be true because the protesters who were shot are afraid to seek treatment in the hospitals," one witness said. "I have spoken to several who are trying to heal gunshots in their own homes."

In Dara, where more than two dozen protesters have been reported killed since protests started more than a week ago, several thousand mourners prayed over the body of 13-year-old Seeta Akrad at Omari mosque, the scene of an attack by security forces last week, Reuters news agency reported.

Security forces were not in evidence at the procession, in which mourners chanted, "The people want the downfall of the regime," a refrain heard during demonstrations in recent months from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen.

Protesters in nearby Tafas burned a police station and another government building, witnesses said.

In Douma, a town near Damascus, thousands of participants at a sit-in were attacked in the early morning by security forces using clubs and sticks, witnesses said.

"God, Syria and Bashar only!" the security forces chanted.

"God, Syria and Dara only!" the demonstrators replied in return, according to an account by local journalist Yasser Khouja.

"The thugs' sticks did not differentiate between elderly men or young men in the prime of life," Khouja said.

Meanwhile, in the poor suburbs just southwest of Damascus, a sectarian schism opened, potentially significant in a country where violence among sects has been rare.

In clashes that began late Friday and lasted until Saturday morning, about 1,000 Sunni Muslims, many related to jailed Islamists, took to the streets chanting, "With our blood and our spirits we sacrifice for you, Dara!" witnesses said.

The chanting drew a large crowd of Alawites, members of a minority religious sect who practice an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and the two sides fought ferociously with knives and sticks, witnesses said.

For many years, there was resentment among many Sunnis that their country was ruled by an Alawite family, the Assads. Alawites account for only 13% of the population, and some Sunnis look down upon them.

To maintain tight control, Assad, and his father Hafez Assad before him, have used secret police and informants as well as ruthless reactions to protests.

Special correspondent Doha Al Zohairy in Cairo contributed to this report.

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