Thursday, March 24, 2011

15 dead in new clashes in southern Syria city

By BASSEM MROUE, Associated Press March 23, 2011

DARAA, Syria – Syrian police launched a relentless assault Wednesday on a
neighborhood sheltering anti-government protesters, fatally shooting at
least 15 in an operation that lasted nearly 24 hours, witnesses said.

At least six were killed in a predawn attack on the al-Omari mosque in the
southern agricultural city of Daraa, where protesters have taken to the
streets in calls for reforms and political freedoms, witnesses said. An
activist in contact with people in Daraa said police shot another three
people protesting in its Roman-era city center after dusk. Six more bodies
were found later in the day, the activist said.

Inspired by the wave of pro-democracy protests around the region, the
uprising in Daraa and at least four nearby villages has become the biggest
domestic challenge since the 1970s to the Syrian government, one of the
most repressive in the Middle East. Security forces have responded with
water cannon, tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. The total
death toll now stands at 22.

As the casualties mounted, people from the nearby villages of Inkhil,
Jasim, Khirbet Ghazaleh and al-Harrah tried to march on Daraa Wednesday
night but security forces opened fire as they approached, the activist
said. It was not immediately clear if there were more deaths or injuries.

Democracy activists used social-networking sites to call for massive
demonstrations across the country on Friday, a day they dubbed "Dignity

Heavy shooting rattled Daraa throughout the day, and an Associated Press
reporter in the city heard bursts of semi-automatic gunfire echoing in its
old center in the early afternoon.

State TV said that an "armed gang" had attacked an ambulance in the city
and security forces killed four attackers and wounded others and was
chasing others who fled. It denied that security forces had stormed the
mosque, but also showed footage of guns, AK-47s, hand grenades, ammunition
and money that it claimed had been seized from inside.

A video posted on Facebook by activists showed what it said was an empty
street near al-Omari Mosque, with the rattle of shooting in the background
as a voice shouts: "My brother, does anyone kill his people? You are our
brothers." The authenticity of the footage could not be independently

Mobile phone connections to Daraa were cut and checkpoints throughout the
city were manned by soldiers in camouflage uniforms and plainclothes
security agents with rifles. Anti-terrorism police wearing dark blue
uniforms were also out on the streets.

An ambulance was parked on the side of a road leading to the old city, its
windshield smashed.

The witness said hundreds of anti-terrorism police had surrounded al-Omari

The activist in Damascus said six had been killed in the raid on the
mosque, which began after midnight and lasted for about three hours. A
witness in Daraa told the AP that five people had been slain, including a
woman who looked out her window to see what was happening during the

The activist said witnesses saw the body of a 12-year-old girl near the
mosque late Wednesday afternoon. Another man was fatally shot by police
after a funeral for one of the slain, the activist said.

And four more bodies were seen laying near the offices of a security
agency but no one dared to come and pick them up, the activist said.

Daraa is a province of some 300,000 people near the Jordanian border that
has suffered greatly from years of drought. It has been generally
supportive of President Bashar Assad's Baath party, said Murhaf Jouejati,
a Syria expert at George Washington University.

He said Daraa had a "conservative, devoutly Muslim" population that has
traditionally been a main pillar of support for the rulling party. The
fact that they have been protesting in the streets "means that the Baath
party is in trouble."

The grip of Syria's security forces is weaker on the border away from the
capital, Damascus, and Daraa hasn't benefited from the country's recent
years of economic growth. Meanwhile, its main city has absorbed many
Syrians from nearby areas who can no longer farm their lands because of
increasing desertification.

"You have a combination of feelings of being excluded and neglected, and
growing internal tensions from environmental refugees," said Steven
Heydemann, a Middle East expert at the United States Institute for Peace.

The unrest in Daraa started with the arrest last week of a group of
students who sprayed anti-government graffiti on walls in the city of
Daraa, some 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of Damascus.

Demonstrations calling for the students' release swelled into calls for
political freedoms and security forces killed at least seven people in
attempts to quash them, according to witnesses and activists.

The Syrian government fired the governor of Daraa province but failed to
quell popular anger and on Tuesday the protests reached the village of
Nawa, where hundreds of people marched demanding reforms, activist said.

So far, none of the slogans used by protesters have called for the ouster
of Assad, who became the head of Syria's minority Alawite ruling elite in
2000 after the death of his father and predecessor, Hafez.

Daraa, like most of Syria, is predominantly Sunni Muslim.

On Wednesday, Abdul-Karim al-Rihawi, head of the Arab League for Human
Rights, said several prominent activists have been arrested in the past
two days, including well known writer Loay Hussein. Hussein had issued a
statement calling for freedom of peaceful protests and expressed
solidarity with the Daraa protesters.


Zeina Karam in Beirut, Lebanon and Diaa Hadid in Cairo contributed.

No comments: