Anti-government protests hit Syria

Thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators join the “solidarity for Deraa” rallies across the country
  Muslim Brotherhood has for the first time called directly for protests in Syria [AFP]

The Syrian government has mobilised army units across the capital and other cities as thousands of demonstrators, demanding the ouster President Bashar al-Assad’s regime took to the streets of several cities, including the coastal town of Baniyas, witnesses have said.
Activists have called for protests following Friday prayers to commemorate the killings of over 100 protesters last Friday.
Al Jazeera correspondent Rula Amin, reporting from Damascus, said today’s slogan is “solidarity for Deraa”.
The call for mass demonstrations was made in a statement on the Facebook page of Syrian Revolution 2011, a motor of the protests in which demonstrators inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world are seeking greater freedoms.
“To the youths of the revolution, tomorrow we will be in all the places, in all the streets … We will gather at the besieged towns, including with our brothers in Deraa,” the statement said.
It said demonstrations would also be staged in other flashpoint towns such as Homs in the centre of the country and Baniyas in the northwest.
Meanwhile, an eyewitness in Deraa, speaking to Al Jazeera on Friday from close to the Omari Mosque that has been a focus for the uprising, described a scene of death and devastation.

He confirmed earlier testimony from a separate source of a split in the military forces sent by Assad to lay siege to the city.

The witness said he had collected the names of the dead from different neighbourhoods and counted 25 bodies in his own area.

“Some areas smell really bad due to the bodies rotting in the street. No one can collect them for fear of being shot,” he said, the sound of continuous gunfire audible over the phone. Those bodies which have been collected are being stored in refrigerated lorries, he said.

“Deraa is completely surrounded by tanks and armed troops. There are snipers on the roofs of government buildings and tall buildings. They are hiding behind water tanks and some are even hiding in the minarets of mosques.”

The source said not all members of the Fifth Division had defected, but those who had were attempting to protect civilians against attacks on them by the Fourth Division, led by Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad.

“Those who have defected are fighting on behalf of the people, helping them with information on the army’s movements and trying to protect civilians from attacks,” he said.

The eyewitness said he had witnessed the defection yesterday of some 20 soldiers of the Fifth Division who abandoned their unit and ran towards civilian houses. “I saw two soldiers gunned down and killed,” he said.

The witness’s comments came as Adnan Mahmud, the information minister, told the AFP news agency that the crackdown on protesters would continue, setting the scene for violent confrontations later Friday.

Our correspondent said: “There has been huge security presence: all entrances to capital are manned by security forces.”

Muslim Brotherhood backs protests

Significantly, Friday’s demonstrations have the backing of the outlawed Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which was crushed by the regime in 1982.

It is the first time that the Brotherhood has called directly for protests in Syria since pro-democracy demonstrations against Assad, nearly erupted six weeks ago.

A declaration by the Brotherhood, sent to Reuters news agency by its leadership in exile on Thursday, said: “Do not let the regime besiege your compatriots. Chant with one voice for freedom and dignity. Do not allow the tyrant to enslave you. God is great.”

So far, Brotherhood has been trying to keep a low profile, as government has been trying to tie them to protests, Amin said.

The looming showdown comes as the UN Human Rights Council prepared for a special session on Syria in Geneva, and the European Union was meeting in Brussels to consider a wide range of sanctions against the Arab state.

The protests have drawn a cross section of Syrian society, which has been under Baath Party rule for the last 48 years.

The younger Assad kept intact the autocratic political system he inherited in 2000 from his father, Hafez al-Assad.

On Monday, Syrian army backed by tanks and armoured vehicle stormed Deraa resulting in further casualties.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attack on Deraa has killed at least 50 civilians, with essential supplies in the city running la


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