Shooting Erupts in Hama Before Arab Visit

December 29, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Mariam Karouny

2011-12-24T130622Z_661044096_GM1E7CO1MID01_RTRMADP_3_SYRIA

Men pray next to the coffins of people killed at security sites on Friday in two car bomb attacks, at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus December 24,2011 in this handout photograph released by Syria’s national news agency SANA. The United Nations expressed grave concern about twin suicide car bombings in Damascus and condemned the attacks that killed 44 people and lent a grim new face to the uprising in Syria.

REUTERS/Sana/Handout

BEIRUT (Reuters) – At least seven people were wounded on Wednesday in the Syrian city of Hama when security forces used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse a protest against President Bashar al-Assad, just a day before a visit by Arab peace monitors, a rights group said.

Live pictures on al Jazeera television showed gunfire and black smoke rising above a street in Hama as dozens of protesters chanted: “Where are the Arab monitors?”

Arab League monitors checking if Syria is ending its violent crackdown on popular unrest are due to visit Hama on Thursday. In its footage, al Jazeera showed one man bleeding from the neck as others shouted in the background.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the protesters were heading towards Orontes square in the city centre for a sit-in at the symbolic location where demonstrations were crushed earlier this year.

Security forces were not visible in the Jazeera footage. Unarmed protesters, some masked, were heard shouting “Assad forces are shooting us.” The protesters then began chanting: “Freedom for ever” and “We will have our revenge on you Bashar.”

Reuters could not verify the details as Syria has banned most foreign media from the country.

Hama, 240 km (150 miles) north of Damascus, has particular resonance for Syrians. The city was the site of the biggest massacre in the country’s modern history.

Troops overran Hama in 1982 to put down the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which made its last stand there. Up to 30,000 people were killed, many of them killed in an army bombardment or executed in the streets by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad’s’ father, the late Hafez al-Assad. Parts of its old city were razed to the ground.

Twenty-nine years later Hama demonstrators demanding the overthrow of Bashar still revile the memory of his father, who died in 2000 after ruling Syria for three decades.

FREEDOM CALL

In the Jazeera footage, the protesters began cursing Hafez’s soul immediately after the gunfire was heard, before rushing to hide in alleyways.

A few looked out to shout a defiant freedom call before disappearing into hiding again. The shooting intensified, then one man shouted out that snipers were now operating in the area. Dozens of men squeezed themselves in an alley, chanting anti-Assad slogans.

“There is no turning back from the revolution,” they shouted.

Hama was among the hardest hit cities in an escalation of military attacks against urban centers where anti-Assad protests had been held.

In August, tanks attacked Hama for ten days, provoking Arab and Western outrage, after weeks of protests that drew hundreds of thousands of people to Orontes Square. Authorities said the operation was necessary to cleanse the city of “terrorists” according to the wishes of Hama inhabitants.

On Wednesday, part of an Arab League team went to a flashpoint area in the city of Homs but some of their planned tour was blocked when gunfire erupted, activists said.

Residents of Homs’s Baba Amr neighborhood initially refused to cooperate when the monitors arrived with an army escort and the team withdrew. But activists said a smaller group of monitors returned without the officer and were escorted by residents and activists on a tour of the turbulent district.

But the monitors could not enter an area where residents said they believed detainees were being hidden because gunfire erupted. It was not clear where the shooting came from.

“Residents were accompanying the team to the area to show them where they believe detainees are being held when suddenly there was gunfire near the checkpoint,” said Rami Abdelrahman, of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

(Editing by Giles Elgood)

14-1

Activists: 111 Killed in Syria’s “Bloodiest Day”

December 22, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Dominic Evans

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian forces killed 111 people ahead of the start of a mission to monitor President Bashar al-Assad’s implementation of an Arab League peace plan, activists said on Wednesday, and France branded the killings an “unprecedented massacre.”

Rami Abdulrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 111 civilians and activists were killed on Tuesday when Assad’s forces surrounded them in the foothills of the northern Jabal al-Zawiyah region in Idlib province and unleashed two hours of bombardment and heavy gunfire.

Another 100 army deserters were either wounded or killed, making it the “bloodiest day of the Syrian revolution,” he said.

“There was a massacre of unprecedented scale in Syria on Tuesday,” said French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero. “It is urgent that the U.N. Security Council issues a firm resolution that calls for an end to the repression.”

The United States said it was deeply disturbed by reports of indiscriminate killing and warned Assad the violence must stop. Britain said it was shocked by the reports and urged Syria to “end immediately its brutal violence against civilians.”

Events in Syria are hard to verify because authorities, who say they are battling terrorists who have killed more than 1,100 soldiers and police, have banned most independent reporting.

Tuesday’s bloodshed brought the death toll reported by activists in the last 48 hours to over 200.

The main opposition Syrian National Council said “gruesome murders” were carried out, including the beheading of a local imam, and demanded international action to protect civilians.

The escalating death toll in nine months of popular unrest has raised the specter of civil war in Syria with Assad, 46, still trying to stamp out protests with troops and tanks despite international sanctions imposed to push him onto a reform path.

Idlib, a northwestern province bordering Turkey, has been a hotbed of protest during the revolt, inspired by uprisings across the Arab world this year, and has also seen increasing attacks by armed insurgents against his forces.

The Observatory said rebels had damaged or destroyed 17 military vehicles in Idlib since Sunday while in the southern province of Deraa violence continued on Wednesday.

Tanks entered the town of Dael, the British-based group said, leading to clashes in which 15 security force members were killed. Six army defectors and a civilian also died and dozens of civilians were wounded, it said.

ARAB PEACE MONITORS

The Syrian National Council said 250 people had been killed on Monday and Tuesday in “bloody massacres,” and that the Arab League and United Nations must protect civilians.

It demanded “an emergency U.N. Security Council session to discuss the (Assad) regime’s massacres in Jabal al-Zawiyah, Idlib and Homs, in particular” and called for “safe zones” to be set up under international protection.

It also said those regions should be declared disaster areas and urged the International Red Crescent and other relief organizations to provide humanitarian aid.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said unless Damascus complied fully with the Arab League plan to end the violence, “additional steps” would be taken against it. Washington and the European Union have already imposed sanctions on Syria.

“Bashar al-Assad should have no doubt that the world is watching, and neither the international community no the Syria people accept his legitimacy,” he said.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said on Tuesday that an advance observer team would go to Syria on Thursday to prepare the way for 150 monitors due to arrive by end-December.

Syria stalled for weeks before signing a protocol on Monday to admit the monitors, who will check its compliance with the plan mandating an end to violence, withdrawal of troops from the streets, release of prisoners and dialogue with the opposition.

Syrian officials say over 1,000 prisoners have been freed since the plan was agreed six weeks ago and that the army has pulled out of cities. The government promised a parliamentary election early next year as well as constitutional reform which might loosen the ruling Baath Party’s grip on power.

Syrian pro-democracy activists are deeply skeptical about Assad’s commitment to the plan, which, if implemented, could embolden demonstrators demanding an end to his 11-year rule, which followed three decades of domination by his father.

Assad is from Syria’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, and Alawites hold many senior posts in the army which he has deployed to crush the mainly Sunni Muslim protests.

In recent months, peaceful protests have increasingly given way to armed confrontations, often led by army deserters.

In a show of military power, state television broadcast footage of live-fire exercises held by the navy and air force, which it said aimed at deterring any attack on Syria.

U.N. TOLL

The United Nations has said more than 5,000 people have been killed in Syria since anti-Assad protests broke out in March.

Arab, U.S. and European sanctions combined with the unrest have sent the economy into sharp decline. The Syrian pound fell nearly 2 percent on Tuesday to more than 55 pounds per dollar, 17 percent down from the official rate before the unrest.

Arab rulers are keen to prevent a descent into civil war in Syria that could affect a region already riven by rivalry between non-Arab Shi’ite Muslim power Iran and Sunni Muslim Arab heavyweights such as Saudi Arabia.

(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Alister Bull in Washington; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Peter Millership)

13-52