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Friday, June 17, 2011

MORE DEATHS AS ASSAD’S FORCES OPEN FIRE ON UNARMED PROTESTERS

Security forces shot dead 19 protesters at several demonstrations across Syria on Friday demanding the removal of President Bashar Al Assad, a main activists’ group coordinating protests said.

The deaths included the first protester to be killed in Syria’s second city, the commercial hub of Aleppo, the Local Coordination Committees said in a statement, according to Reuters.


Aleppo, a mostly Sunni city with significant minorities and a rich merchant class with close links to the Alawite ruling hierarchy, had been largely free of protests, except at its university campus and on the outskirts, during the three month uprising.
Security forces opened fire on protesters in the west, east and north of Syria earlier on Friday, a rights activist said, as thousands demonstrated across the country.

“There was intense firing to disperse the demonstrations in Banias (west) and there were casualties” Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, told AFP by telephone.

“Security forces pursued protesters into alleyways to disperse them,” he said, adding that some people were arrested while residents were “ordered not to go out on their balconies.”

Abdel Rahman said that demonstrations also took place after weekly Muslim prayers in the central city of Homs—where 5,000 protesters rallied—Deraa province in the south, Jableh in the west and Deir Al Zor in the east.

At least three protesters were wounded in Deir Al Zor when security forces opened fire to disperse demonstrations, he said, adding that there were also “reports of people killed” in Homs and others injured.

Club-wielding Syrian forces also dispersed hundreds of protesters in the southern city of Suweida, said Mr. Abdel Rahman.

Demonstrations after the weekly Muslim prayers also gripped several other cities and towns in the 23-million-people nation, including Latakia, Maaret Al Nooman and the countryside outside Damascus.

Everywhere protesters “chanted anti-regime slogans and showed solidarity with towns besieged” by the army, he said.

Rights activist Abdullah Al Khalil said that 2,500 people demonstrated in the northern town of Raqqa and that security forces deployed in large numbers outside mosques did not intervene.

In the nothern town of Amuda more than 3,000 people took to the streets after emerging from prayers at the city’s Grand Mosque, calling for “freedom and democracy,” rights activist Hassan Birro said.

And more than 4,000 demonstrated in the northwestern city of Qamishli.

State news agency SANA reported, meanwhile, that three policemen were wounded by gunfire on Friday in the Qabun neighborhood of Damascus, and several others were hurt in Homs.

“Three policemen were wounded when armed men opened fire on them in Qabun,” SANA said. “A number of policemen were also shot and wounded by gunmen in Homs,” it said, adding that “troublemakers” were burning tires and cutting off roads in the city.

And in a rare report, the agency also said that rallies were under way in several cities and towns, including Hama in the north and Deir Al Zor, with demonstrators chanting “various slogans.” It did not elaborate.

Anti-regime protests have swept Syria like clockwork on Fridays after the main weekly Muslim prayers since the start of the uprising in mid-March.

Last Friday more than 25 protesters were killed by security forces across the country.

The opposition has attached a name to each Friday’s campaign, naming this one “The Day of Saleh al-Ali,” an Alawite leader who led an uprising against French colonial rule in the 20th century.

Using an Alawite figure’s name was meant to show that President Assad’s opponents were not rising up over secular concerns. The Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.

Alawite dominance has bred resentment, which Assad has worked to tamp down by pushing a strictly secular identity in Syria. But the president now appears to be relying heavily on his Alawite power base, beginning with highly placed Assad relatives, to crush the resistance.

The government blames a foreign conspiracy for the unrest, saying religious extremists are behind it - not true reformers. Military chiefs said the northwestern sweep was needed to rid the area of “armed terrorists.”

(Abeer Tayel, a senior editor at Al Arabiya English

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