Eid Protests Across Syria Defy Tanks and Troops

September 1, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) – Security forces shot dead four demonstrators on Tuesday as people streamed out of mosques after prayers to mark the end of Ramadan and renewed protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, activists and residents said.

The victims, who included a 13-year-old boy, were killed in the towns of al-Hara and Inkhil in southern Deraa province.

Demonstrations broke out elsewhere across the country, notably in Damascus suburbs, the city of Homs, 165 km (100 miles to the north) and the northwestern province of Idlib, the sources said.

“The people want the downfall of the president,” protesters shouted in the Damascus suburb of Harasta, where activists said dozens of soldiers defected at the weekend after refusing to shoot at the crowds.

In the adjacent Saqba suburb a crowd held their shoes up in the air — an insulting gesture in the Arab world — and chanted anti-Assad slogans.

According to one activist group, troops have killed at least 551 civilians during Ramadan, the holiest period in the Islamic calendar.

Five months into the street uprising against his rule, Assad, from Syria’s minority Alawite sect, is facing more frequent demonstrations. Protesters have been encouraged by the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, with whom Assad had close ties, and rising international pressure on the ruling hierarchy.

The Obama administration froze the U.S. assets of Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem and two other Syrian officials on Tuesday in response to Assad’s increasingly bloody crackdown.

The Treasury Department also named Ali Abdul Karim Ali, Syria’s Ambassador to Lebanon, where Assad wields influence through the Shi’ite Hezbollah guerrilla group, and his adviser Bouthaina Shaaban.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States had imposed the sanctions on the three because of the “role that they play in propagating and advancing the reign of terror that Assad is exacting on their own people.”

Moualem and Shaaban have appeared in the media defending military assaults on towns and cities, saying Syrian forces were pursuing “terrorists.” They are not part of Assad’s decision-making inner circle, composed of his younger brother Maher, other family members and top security officials already on the U.S. sanctions list.

Opposition figures in Syria see international pressure as crucial to stripping Assad of legitimacy and in helping raise the momentum of peaceful protests.

Residents and activists are reporting increasing defections among Syrian troops, drawn mostly from the Sunni majority population but dominated by Alawite officers effectively under the command of Maher.

In the capital, YouTube footage showed soldiers from core units roaming the center in green public transport buses, their AK-47s hanging out from the doors, to prevent protests, which broke out nonetheless in Qaboun, Kfar Souseh, Rukn al-Din and Maydan districts, activists said.

Moral Ground

In a report published on Tuesday, the Syrian Revolution Coordinating Union grassroots activists’ group said Assad’s forces killed 551 people during Ramadan and that 130 others were killed on July 31, the eve of Ramadan, in a tank assault on the city of Hama, scene of a 1982 massacre by the military.

“The report does not include the number of martyrs who were not identified by name nor… bodies that were abducted (by security forces) and not returned to their families,” it said.

Amnesty International said that deaths in Syrian prisons and police detention had soared in recent months as Assad’s government tried to crush the protests.

The London-based human rights group said it had details of at least 88 people believed to have died in detention between April and mid-August. At least 52 of them had apparently suffered some form of torture that was likely to have contributed to their death.

Chibli Mallat, a professor of law at Harvard, and chairman of the Right to Nonviolence international group of public figures, said Syria’s death toll, although high, was still less than Libya, where the revolution turned into armed conflict and needed NATO’s help.

“It may be also the case in Syria today … But is it necessary to reach the point that arms are engaged?” Mallat said in an article published on Tuesday in Egypt’s al-Ahram online.

“Is it not wiser, albeit perhaps more frustrating, to keep the revolution pure in the tenacity of its nonviolence, rather than lose the absolute moral superiority against violent rulers?” said Mallat, who is Lebanese.

The official state news agency said state television had aired an audio recording of two “terrorists” who described themselves as activists.

It said the tape revealed “a full agenda of provocation and targeting police and army camps and terrorising peaceful citizens in the name of freedom and non-violence.”

The Syrian National Human Rights Organization, headed by exiled dissident Ammar al-Qurabi, said pro-Assad forces, including a loyalist militia known as shabbiha, had killed at least 3,100 civilians since the uprising erupted in March, including 18 people on Monday alone.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay said this month that 2,200 people have been killed, with Assad’s forces continuing “to employ excessive force, including heavy artillery, to quell peaceful demonstrations and regain control over the residents of various cities.”

Syrian authorities blame “armed terrorist groups” for the bloodshed and say they have killed 500 soldiers and police. They have also repeatedly denied that army defections have been taking place.

Foreign media were expelled after the uprising began in March, making verification of reports difficult.

(Additional reporting by Suleiman; al-Khalidi; Editing by Angus MacSwan and David Stamp)

Syria Tank Assault Kills 11 Near Turkey

June 30, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian troops shot dead 11 villagers on Wednesday, residents said, as authorities pressed on with a tank-led assault that has driven thousands of refugees across the northwest border with Turkey.

The assault on Jabal al-Zawya, a region 35 km (22 miles) south of Turkey that has seen spreading protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, was launched overnight, a day after authorities said they would invite opponents to talks on July 10 to set up a dialogue offered by Assad.

Opposition leaders have dismissed the offer, saying it is not credible while mass killings and arrests continue. The Local Coordination Committees, a main activists’ group, said in a statement on Wednesday that 1,000 people have been arrested arbitrarily across Syria over the last week alone.

A resident of Jabal al-Zawya, a teacher who gave his name as Ziad, told Reuters by phone that among the dead were two youths in the village of Sarja.

“An eleven-year-old child is also badly wounded by random gunfire. We cannot get him out of the village for treatment because the tanks blocked all roads and troops are firing non-stop,” he said.

Ammar Qarabi, president of the Syrian National Human Rights Organisation, told Reuters from exile in Cairo that at least four villagers died in the village of Rama when tanks fired machineguns on surrounding woods then on the village. Residents reported killings in other parts of the region, which is home to more than 30 villages.

“Jabal al-Zawya, was one of the first regions in Syria where people took to the street demanding the downfall of the regime. The military attacks have now reached them and they will likely result in more killings and in more refugees to Turkey,” said Qarabi, who is from the northwestern province of Idlib.

He said he based his information on several witnesses’ testimony. Syria has banned most international media, making it difficult to independently verify accounts of violence.

A resident of Jabal al-Zawya said he heard large explosions overnight around the villages of Rama and Orum al-Joz, west of the highway linking the cities of Hama and Aleppo.

“My relatives there say the shelling is random and that tens of people have been arrested,” he said.

Another resident said 30 tanks rolled into Jabal al-Zawya on Monday from the village of Bdama on the Turkish border, where troops broke into houses and burned crops.

Rights campaigners say Assad’s troops, security forces and gunmen have killed over 1,300 civilians since the uprising for political freedom erupted in the southern Hauran Plain in March, including over 150 people killed in a scorched earth campaign against towns and villages in Idlib.

They say scores of troops and police were also killed for refusing to fire on civilians. Syrian authorities say more than 500 soldiers and police died in clashes with “armed terrorist groups,” whom they also blame for most civilian deaths.

Protests against Assad have been spreading despite military assaults and a fierce security crackdown, with activists expecting more students to join street demonstrations after exams end on Thursday.
Night-time demonstrations have intensified to circumvent heavy security in the day. The Local Coordination Committees said security forces shot dead one protester at a large rally on Wednesday night in Homs, 165 km north of Damascus.

Residents in Deraa, the cradle of the uprising, said tens of people were arrested in old quarter of the southern city on Wednesday, following demonstrations that reignited following a military assault two months ago led by Assad’s brother Maher.

Assad said in a speech last week that he had met delegations representing most Syrians to discuss the crisis and “felt love… I have never felt at any stage of my life.”

One of his advisers, Bouthaina Shaaban, told Sky News on Tuesday: “We hope that by conducting and hastening the national dialogue, we will be able to isolate any militant or violent group and work together with the international community to overcome that big problem.”

Assad has faced criticism from Western governments over the military campaign to crush the three-month uprising. France’s Foreign Minister Alain Juppe will meet his Russian counterpart later this week and will discuss the Syrian impasse in the hope of convincing Moscow to change its stance on a resolution condemning Syria at the United Nations.

French foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said Paris was extremely concerned with the ongoing violence in Syria saying that “reforms and repression were not compatible.”

Valero, however, said that Syrian authorities took a positive step by allowing a meeting in Damascus on Monday of intellectuals that included several opposition figures.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague echoed France’s guarded welcome of Monday’s talks, but called for an end to violence, the release of political prisoners and a right to peaceful protest.

“Protests across the country are still being met by unacceptable violence from the regime, and the reports of Syrian troop movements near the Turkish border are of serious concern,” he said.

In Washington, the U.S. Treasury Department said it was imposing sanctions against Syria’s security forces for human rights abuses and against Iran for supporting them.

The Treasury named the four major branches of Syria’s security forces and said any assets they may have subject to U.S. jurisdiction will be frozen and that Americans are barred from any dealings with them.

Ankara has also become increasingly critical of Assad after backing him in his moves to improve ties with the West and seek a peace deal with Israel.

Turkey shares an 840 km border with Syria, a mostly Sunni country ruled by a tight-knit hierarchy belonging the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Islam.

Assad had opened the Syrian market to Turkish goods, but Turkish container traffic to Syria has fallen sharply over the last month, businesses say.

Sawasiah, another Syrian rights organization headed by lawyer Mohannad al-Hassani, said a security campaign that has resulted in the arrest of more than 12,000 people across Syria since March, has intensified in the last few days.

Security forces arrested Farhad Khader Ayou, an official in the Kurdish Mustaqbal party, on Tuesday in the eastern province of Hasaka, Sawasiah said.

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