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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tens of thousands rally in Damascus to support Assad as he again promises reforms

Tens of thousands of Syrians demonstrated in central Damascus on Wednesday in show of support for President Bashar al-Assad, who is battling a six-month uprising against his rule, as more deaths were reported by security forces fire across Syria.

“America, out, out, Syria will stay free,” chanted the crowd, many of them carrying pictures of Assad and Syrian flags. They also shouted slogans warning the European Union not to intervene in their country.

“God, Syria and Bashar,” they sang.

State television described the government-backed rally as a “million-strong march ... supporting national independence and rejecting foreign intervention.”

At the start of the demonstration a man holding the flags of Russia and China -- which both vetoed a European-drafted resolution against Syria at the United Nations last week -- flew over the crowd, suspended from a helicopter by rope.

It was the biggest demonstration for months in the center of the capital, which has been relatively untouched by the protests which have rocked Damascus suburbs and other parts of the country.

As many as 10 people were killed by Syrian security forces during protests across the country on Tuesday, activists told Al Arabiya. “Seven people were killed in Homs, while three others were killed in Aleppo, Duma and Idlib,” activists said.

Assad’s crackdown on protesters against his 11-year rule has killed about 2,900 people, according to U.N. estimates. The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions and are seeking a U.N. resolution against Damascus. The government routinely blames “terrorists” of being behind the violence dominating the country.

In the first interview with Al Arabiya, the economic adviser of Syria’s National Council, Osama Qadi, warned of the economic impacts on the country and said that the foreign currency reserves has been decreasing rapidly since the start of the revolution.

President Assad, meanwhile, plans to create a new constitution, a top ruling party official said on Tuesday, as China joined long-time ally Russia in pressing for prompt reforms in a country riven by a deadly crackdown on anti-regime protesters.

Mohammed Said Bkheitan, a senior official in the ruling Baath party, said Assad will “decide within two days the creation of a committee to prepare a new constitution,” according to AFP.

The committee will complete its work by year end, with the new document requiring a two-thirds approval of the Assad-dominated parliament and then being submitted to a referendum, Bkheitan was quoted by the pro-government al-Watan newspaper as saying.

China on Tuesday urged Syria to move faster to implement reforms, a week after Beijing and Moscow infuriated the West by blocking a proposed UN Security Council resolution against Assad's deadly crackdown.

“We believe the Syrian government should move faster to honor its reform pledges and swiftly start to push forward the inclusive political process with the broad participation of all parties in Syria,” foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said.

This was the first time that China has veered from its long-standing policy of non-interference in the affairs of Syria, which has been rocked by anti-government protests and violence since mid-March.

Liu’s comments came as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited Beijing.

Reform or resign

On Friday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had told Assad either to reform or resign, while warning the West that Russia will fight outside attempts to oust him.

Medvedev said he wanted to see an end to the crackdown as much as Europe and the United States.

“Russia wants as much as the other countries for Syria to end the bloodshed and demands that the Syrian leadership conduct the necessary reforms,” Medvedev said.

“If the Syrian leadership is unable to undertake these reforms, it will have to go,” he said in one of his strongest public comments on the crisis.

But he quickly reasserted Russia’s earlier position by saying that the best the West could do was support talks and not meddle.

“This is something that has to be decided not by NATO or individual European countries but by the people and the leadership of Syria,” Medvedev said.

On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow and Beijing were ready to propose a new U.N. resolution on Syria that would condemn violence carried out both by Assad's regime and the opposition.

The Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation on Tuesday warned Syria, one of its 57 members, about the consequences of its continued use of force.

Secretary general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said this would “only lead to more violence and bloodshed, thus exacerbating the crisis and making it more complex.”

On Sunday, Assad again renewed a pledge of reforms, having made numerous promises since the unrest broke out.

“Syria is taking steps focused on two main fronts – political reform and the dismantling of armed groups” seeking to destabilize the country, he said.

He said that the “Syrian people had welcomed the reforms but that foreign attacks intensified just as the situation in the country began to make progress.”

Michel Kilo, a leading activist based in Syria, said on Tuesday that Syria’s opposition must avoid divisions that play into the hands of President Assad, particularly between campaigners inside and outside the country, Reuters reported.

During a visit to Paris, Kilo, a writer who spent six years in jail for opposing Syria’s leadership, said his group, the National Committee for Democratic Change, did not want foreign intervention of the kind seen in Libya.

The United Nations should instead adopt a resolution allowing observers to monitor and protect civilians, he told reporters.

“The regime is betting on the differences between those inside and outside, and we are trying to not serve that,” said Kilo.

Kilo’s group has organized demonstrations in Syria and appears increasingly keen to bridge divisions with opposition groups outside the country.

Some figures inside the country privately criticize the opposition in exile for being too ready to seek outside intervention in Syria.

Other issues dividing the opposition include ethnic and sectarian differences, disagreement over the role of religion in the state and a generation gap between veteran opposition figures and the youthful street activists.

The 71-year old Kilo said he would meet the Paris-based leader of the National Council, a broad opposition group formed earlier this month, including academics, grassroots activists, the Muslim Brotherhood and other dissident signatories of the so-called Damascus Declaration.

National Council facing criticism

The National Council’s chairman Burhan Ghalioun has called for his movement to be recognized as representative of those ranged against Assad. But he has faced criticism for failing to unite all strands of the opposition.

Kilo said that while ready to meet Ghalioun in Paris it was not “logical” to be guided from outside when millions were protesting on the streets inside Syria.

Kilo, whose group includes Syrian nationalists, Kurds, socialists, Marxists as well as independents, said he did not support foreign military intervention in Syria because it would raise questions over the country’s independence.

“It’s not Libya,” he said. “We have extremely sensitive relations with Turkey, Iran and Israel as well as minorities such as the Kurds, Allawites and Christians, so we have to handle the situation carefully,” according to Reuters.

Kilo, a Christian from the Mediterranean city of Lattakia, pointed to difficulties in other countries caught up in a wave of pro-democracy uprisings across the Arab world, citing the escalation of a protest by Coptic Christians in Egypt that led to 25 deaths in recent days.

“This will leave a very negative impact (in Syria),” he said. It will frighten the people, who are already extremely frightened.”

Since Monday night, the Syrian Observatory said that the al-Khalidiya district of Homs has been the scene of a “vast security operation” with electricity and telecommunications cut off and 115 arrests, AFP reported.

It added that people had beaten and insulted in front of their families, and that heavy gunfire and caused injuries and damage to shops.

In Vienna, meanwhile, several hundred people demonstrated calling for an end to Assad's regime.

Around 20 people had stormed into the Syrian embassy overnight on Saturday, demonstrating on the balcony while people outside cheered. Some damage was caused and police detained 11 people.


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