Sunday, March 27, 2011

Troops open fire as protests explode across Syria

Three articles

- Troops open fire as protests explode across Syria
- Leader offers to go if Yemen's in 'safe hands'
- Government backers, police attack Jordan protest

Troops open fire as protests explode across Syria

By ZEINA KARAM and BASSEM MROUE, Associated Press March 25, 2011

DAMASCUS, Syria – Troops opened fire on protesters in cities across Syria
and pro- and anti-government crowds clashed in the capital's historic old
city as one of the Mideast's most repressive regimes sought to put down
demonstrations that exploded nationwide Friday demanding reform.

The upheaval sweeping the region definitively took root in Syria as an
eight-day uprising centered on a rural southern town dramatically expanded
into protests by tens of thousands in multiple cities. The
once-unimaginable scenario posed the biggest challenge in decades to
Syria's iron-fisted rule.

Protesters wept over the bloodied bodies of slain comrades and massive
crowds chanted anti-government slogans, then fled as gunfire erupted,
according to footage posted online. Security forces shot to death more
than 15 people in at least six cities and villages, including a suburb of
the capital, Damascus, witnesses told The Associated Press. Their accounts
could not be independently confirmed.

The regime of President Bashar Assad, an ally of Iran and supporter of
militant groups around the region, had seemed immune from the Middle
East's three-month wave of popular uprising. His security forces, which
have long silenced the slightest signs of dissent, quickly snuffed out
smaller attempts at protests last month.

Syrians also have fearful memories of the brutal crackdown unleashed by
his father, Hafez Assad, when Muslim fundamentalists in the central town
of Hama tried an uprising in 1982: Thousands were killed and parts of the
city were flattened by artillery and bulldozers.

The Assads' leadership — centered on members of their Alawi minority sect,
a branch of Shiite Islam in this mainly Sunni nation — have built their
rule by mixing draconian repression with increasing economic freedom,
maintaining the loyalty of the wealthy Sunni merchant class in the
prosperous cities of Damascus and Aleppo.

Bashar Assad now faces the same dilemma confronted by the leaders of
Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain — ratchet up violence or offer
concessions. A day earlier, his government seemed to test the latter
track, offering to consider lifting draconian emergency laws and promising
increased pay and benefits for state workers.

As massive crowds rejected the offers, the worst violence appeared
centered around Daraa, where the arrest of a group of young men for
spraying anti-regime graffiti last week set off a cycle of growing
demonstrations and increasingly violent government crackdowns.

The Syrian government said 34 had been slain in Daraa before Friday, while
the U.N. human rights office put the figure at 37. Activists said it was
as high as 100.

Thousands poured into Daraa's central Assad Square after Friday prayers,
many from nearby villages, chanting "Freedom! Freedom!" and waving Syrian
flags and olive branches, witnesses said. Some attacked a bronze statue of
Hafez Assad. One witness told The Associated Press that they tried to set
it on fire, another said they tried to pull it down.

Troops responded with heavy gunfire, according to a resident who said he
saw two bodies and many wounded people brought to Daraa's main hospital.

After night fell, thousands of enraged protesters snatched weapons from a
far smaller number of troops and chased them out of Daraa's Roman-era old
city, taking back control of the al-Omari mosque, the epicenter of the
past week's protests.

The accounts could not be immediately independently confirmed because of
Syria's tight restrictions on the press.

In Damascus, the heart of Bashar Assad's rule, protests and clashes broke
out in multiple neighborhoods as crowds of regime opponents marched and
thousands of Assad loyalists drove in convoys, shouting, "Bashar, we love

The two sides battled, whipping each other with leather belts, in the old
city of Damascus outside the historic Umayyad mosque, parts of which date
to the 8th century. About two miles (three kilometers) away, central
Umayyad Square was packed with demonstrators who traded punches and hit
each other with sticks from Syrian flags, according to Associated Press
reporters at the scene.

An amateur video posted on the Internet showed hundreds of young men
marching though Damascus' old covered bazaar, some riding on others'
shoulders and pumping their fists in the air as they chanted: "With our
souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, Daraa!"

Security forces chased and beat some 200 protesters chanting "Freedom,
Freedom!" on a bridge in the center of the city, an activist said.

After dark, troops opened fire on protesters in the Damascus suburb of
Maadamiyeh, a witness told the AP. An activist in contact with people
there said three had been killed.

The scenes of chaos and violence shocked many in this tightly controlled
country where protests are usually confined to government-orchestrated
demonstrations in support of the regime, and political discussions are
confined to whispers, mainly indoors.

"There's a barrier of fear that has been broken and the demands are
changing with every new death," said Ayman Abdul-Nour, a Dubai-based
former member of Assad's ruling Baath Party. "We're starting to hear calls
for the regime's ouster."

Also startling was the scope of the protests — in multiple cities around
the country of nearly 24 million.

Troops opened fire on more than 1,000 people marching in Syria's main
Mediterranean port, Latakia. One activist told the AP that witnesses saw
four slain protesters in a hospital. Another was reported killed in the
central city of Homs, where hundreds of people demonstrated in support of
Daraa and demanded reforms, he said. The activist, like others around the
country, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by the

Demonstrators in the southern village of Sanamein tried to march to Daraa
in support of the protesters, but were met by troops who opened fire, said
an activist in Damascus in touch with witnesses there. He said the
witnesses reported as many as 20 fatalities, though it was impossible to
confirm the number.

A video posted on Facebook by Syrian pro-democracy activists showed five
dead young men lying on stretchers in Sanamein as men wept around them.
The voice of a woman could be heard saying, "Down with Bashar Assad."

An unidentified Syrian official asserted that an armed group attacked the
army headquarters in Sanamein and tried to storm it, leading to a clash
with guards.

Further protests erupted in the town of Douma, outside the capital, and
the cities of Raqqa in the north and Zabadani in the west, near the border
with Lebanon, a human rights activist said, reporting an unknown number of
protesters detained.

The protests in Damascus appeared led by relatively well-off Syrians, many
of whom who have been calling for reforms for years and have relatives
jailed as political prisoners.

They contrast sharply with the working-class Sunni protesters in
conservative Daraa, where small farmers and herders pushed off their land
by drought have increasingly moved into the province's main city and
surrounding villages, looking for work and in many cases growing angry at
the lack of opportunity.

The protests in Daraa appeared to take on a sectarian dimension, with some
accusing the regime of using Shiite Hezbollah and Iranian operatives in
the crackdown.

The origin of the protests, far from urban centers, makes Syria's uprising
similar to Tunisia's, in which demonstrations in towns and villages spread
to cities, said Bassam Haddad, director of the Middle East studies program
at George Mason University.

That doesn't necessarily mean the regime is in danger, he said. "If this
continues at the level we see right now or if the regime finds a way to
deal with the protests at this level, the Syrian regime will be able to
weather the storm." But he said the bloodshed could only cause protests to

The White House urged Syria's government to cease attacks on protesters
and Turkey said its neighbor should quickly enact reforms to meet
legitimate demands. The U.N. said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke to
Assad Friday morning and underlined "that governments had an obligation to
respect and protect their citizens' fundamental rights."


Mroue reported from Beirut. Michael Weissenstein and Ben Hubbard in Cairo
contributed to this report.

Leader offers to go if Yemen's in 'safe hands'

By AHMED AL-HAJ, Associated Press – Fri Mar 25, 2011

SANAA, Yemen – Facing growing calls for his resignation, Yemen's longtime
ruler told tens of thousands of supporters Friday that he's ready to step
down but only if he can leave the country in "safe hands," while
anti-government protesters massed for a rival rally.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh spoke in a rare appearance before a cheering
crowd outside his presidential palace in the Yemeni capital.

Across town, an even larger number of people converged on a square in
front of Sanaa University chanting slogans calling for his ouster and
waving red cards emblazoned with the word "leave" despite fears of more
violence a week after government security forces shot dead more than 40
demonstrators in the capital.

Protesters carried through the square the bodies of two protesters hit in
last week's shooting who recently died of their wounds, their coffins
draped with Yemeni flags. Demonstrators prayed over the bodies and chanted
to the president, "Everyone who falls as a martyr shakes your throne, o
Ali!" as the bodies were taken for burial.

Armed with assault rifles, soldiers from units that defected to the
uprising patrolled the square to protect protesters. Hundreds of people
lined up to be searched before entering, many clad in white robes and
turbans, with prayer mats tossed over their shoulders for noontime

"We are trying to gather as many people as possible here. He needs more
pressure to leave," said demonstrator Magid Abbas, a 29-year-old
physician. "We have great hopes."

Thousands also marched in anti-government protests in two areas of the
southern port city of Aden. Security forces dispersed one of the protests
with tear gas, participants said.

The bloodshed last Friday prompted a wave of defections by military
commanders, ruling party members and others, swelling the ranks of the
opposition and leaving the president isolated.

Saleh, in power for nearly 32 years, responded by imposing a state of
emergency that allows media censorship and gives authorities wide powers
to search homes and arrest suspects without judicial process, censor mail
and tap phone lines.

At the same time, he has made gestures trying to appease the protesters,
to no avail. Over the past month, he has offered not to run again when his
current term ends in 2013, then promised to step down by the end of the
year and open a dialogue with the leaders of the demonstrators. That offer
was rejected as too little, too late.

Instead protesters have hardened their demands, with youth groups calling
for Saleh's immediate ouster, the rewriting of the constitution and the
dissolution of parliament, local councils and the notorious security

Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a top military official who defected to the
opposition this week, met privately with Saleh on Thursday to suggest ways
he could leave power, an aide who attended the meeting said.

Saleh rejected the offer, lashing out instead out at the protesters and
promising to "cling to constitutional legitimacy" and to use "all means
possible" to protect the country.

He appeared to soften his tone on Friday but his harsh descriptions of his
opposition suggested continued defiance.

"We in leadership, we don't want power but we need to hand it over to
trustful hands, not to sick, hateful, corrupt, collaborator hands," Saleh
told his supporters, who carried pictures of the president and signs
reading "No to terrorism!"

"We are ready to leave, but we want to do it properly and at the hands of
our people who should choose their leaders," he said, calling the
opposition a small minority of drug dealers, rebels and illegal money

The remarks recalled a similar statement by ex-Egyptian President Hosni
Mubarak who, during the height of the 18-day uprising against his rule,
said that he wanted to resign but couldn't for fear the country would sink
into chaos. Not long after, Mubarak was ousted on Feb. 11, chased out by
protesters who have inspired similar uprisings demanding change in Yemen
and several other countries.

Who might take power after Saleh is of particular consequence to the
United States, which has depended on him for cooperation in fighting the
Yemen-based al-Qaida offshoot that the Obama administration considers the
most serious terrorist threat to the U.S.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner noted Saleh's pledge
to engage in a peaceful transition of power and said the U.S. now wanted
all sides in Yemen to participate in a meaningful dialogue.

"The timing and the form of this transition should be identified, we
believe, through dialogue and negotiation," he told journalists. "This
includes genuine participation by all sides in an open and transparent
process that addresses the legitimate concerns of the Yemeni people."

Reflecting a gradual crumbling of Saleh's authority across the country,
residents of towns in five provinces have taken over local security from
police, in some cases stripping them of their guns before letting them

"We have formed popular committees in all the city's neighborhoods and
streets to protect the houses since police left," said activist Nasser
Baqazqouz in the southern port city of Mukalla.

Even members of a security force run by Saleh's son surrendered their guns
to residents in three towns in Abyan province, security officials said,
speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to
talk to the media.


Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed to this report from

Government backers, police attack Jordan protest

By JAMAL HALABY, Associated Press – Fri Mar 25, 2011

AMMAN, Jordan – Protesters demanding reforms clashed with government
supporters in the center of Jordan's capital on Friday, pelting each other
stones until security forces charged in and beat protesters, as unrest
intensified in this key U.S. ally.

The clashes, in which 120 were injured, were the most violent in more than
two months of protests inspired by the popular uprisings in Tunisia and
Egypt. One man reported to have been killed while protesting was later
identified as a government supporter who died of a heart attack.

Protests in Jordan have generally been smaller than those in other Arab
nations — and in another difference have not sought the ouster of the
country's leader, King Abdullah II. But the young Jordanians organizing
the demonstrations said this week they are intensifying their campaign,
demanding the removal of the prime minister, creation of a more reformist
government, the dissolving of what is seen as a docile parliament and the
dismantling of the largely feared intelligence department.

Hundreds of anti-government activists — many of whom coordinated through
Facebook — vowed to camp out in a central Amman square in front of the
Interior Ministry until their demands are met. Their numbers swelled to
more than 1,500 during the day to include members of the Islamic Action
Front, Jordan's largest opposition party, and their leftist allies.

In the afternoon, several hundred government supporters attacked the
protesters, sparking stone-throwing clashes until about 400 riot police
stormed the square. The pro-government crowd appeared to disperse as the
security forces waded in, hitting protesters with clubs and firing water
cannons. At least a dozen protesters were dragged into a nearby government

One person died. The opposition Islamic Action Front said he was a
protester and that he was beaten to death by police. Later, however, a
spokesman for the anti-government protest movement, Ziad al-Khawaldeh,
said the man who died was not among the protesters.

Police chief Lt. Gen. Hussein Majali said the man was a government
supporter who died of a heart attack while running for cover when clashes
broke out. He identified him as 55-year-old Khairi Jamil Saad. Other
government officials, including the foreign minister, also said he was on
the pro-government side and died of a heart attack.

Majali said 120 people were hurt, including 52 policemen. Eight people
were detained for questioning.

Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit accused the Islamic Action Front and the
umbrella group it is part of, the Muslim Brotherhood, of inciting the

The Muslim Brotherhood rejected the accusation. "The protesters were
peaceful and didn't attack anyone," said Jamil Abu-Bakr. "The prime
minister is running away from his responsibility."

Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said police had surrounded the protesters to
protect them but were then caught in the middle when counter-demonstrators
attacked the crowd.

Hospital officials said more than 100 people were admitted with serious to
minor injuries to the head and the body. The officials insisted on
anonymity, fearing government reprisal. An Associated Press reporter saw
three police officers, their faces covered with blood, being taken away in

One of the wounded, Mohammed Maaytah, 26, said he passed out after
suffering an eye injury from a hurled stone.

"As I tried to get up from the ground, five policemen attacked me with
batons and kept beating me until I passed out again," he said. "The police
were supposed to protect us, but they attacked us."

Noor Smadi, 23, said she was also beaten by police until "I fainted."

"Our Cabinet is a bunch of criminals," she said. "They had policemen beat
us savagely, although we insisted that our protest was peaceful."

A similar clash broke out in the same square late Thursday, injuring 35

Elsewhere, 3,000 pro-king loyalists took to the streets of the capital in
two separate protests, waving portraits of the monarch and chanting "our
lives and souls we sacrifice for you, King Abdullah."

Around 7,000 people reiterated pledges of loyalty to the king in
demonstrations in the Red Sea port of Aqaba and the Jordan Valley,
bordering Israel and the West Bank, the Petra state news agency said.

About 400 members of Islamic Action Front and their leftist allies also
staged another demonstration outside Amman's Kalouti mosque, near the
Israeli Embassy. They demanded an end to Jordan's 1994 peace treaty with

In the western city of Salt, some 300 Salafis — an ultraconservative
Islamic sect banned in Jordan — protested in the city, demanding convicted
al-Qaida prisoners be released from Jordanian jails.

Meanwhile, Petra said 15 leftists and independents quit a national
dialogue committee with the government on reforms to protest police using
force against the protesters. The 53-member committee was formed earlier
this month to draft laws that would give wider public freedoms.


Associated Press writer Dale Gavlak contributed to this report.

(This version CORRECTS name, age and circumstances of man's death with
updated information from officials.)

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