Saturday, April 09, 2011

Syrian protests turn deadly; 32 reported killed

By BASSEM MROUE and ZEINA KARAM, Associated Press April 8, 2011

BEIRUT – Mass protests calling for sweeping changes in Syria's
authoritarian regime turned deadly Friday, with the government and
protesters both claiming heavy casualties as the country's three-week
uprising entered a dangerous new phase.

The bloodiest clashes occurred in the restive city of Daraa, where human
rights activists and witnesses said Syrian security forces opened fire on
tens of thousands of protesters, killing 25 people and wounding hundreds.

At the same time, state-run TV said 19 policemen and members of the
security forces were killed when gunmen opened fire on them. It was the
first significant claim of casualties by the Syrian government, which has
contended that armed gangs rather than true reform-seekers are behind the
unrest — and it could signal plans for a stepped-up retaliation.

The protests were in response to calls by organizers to take to the
streets every Friday to demand change in one of the most rigid nations in
the Middle East. Marches were held in cities across the country as the
movement showed no sign of letting up, despite the violent crackdowns.

At least 32 protesters were killed nationwide, according to human rights
activists. The bloodshed lifted the death toll from three weeks of
protests to more than 170 people, according to Amnesty International.

The calls for reform have shaken the regime of President Bashar Assad,
whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years. Assad, a
British-trained eye doctor, inherited power from his father 11 years ago
and tried to help the country emerge from years of international isolation
and lift Soviet-style economic restrictions.

But despite early promises of social and political change, Assad has
slipped back into the autocratic ways of his father.

As the wave of protests have gathered steam, Assad has offered some
limited concessions — firing local officials and forming committees to
look into replacing the country's despised emergency laws, which allow the
regime to arrest people without charge. On Thursday, he granted
citizenship to thousands of Kurds, fulfilling a decades-old demand of the
country's long-ostracized minority.

But those gestures have failed to mollify a growing movement that is
raising the ceiling on its demands for concrete reforms and free

"The protests are about Syrians wanting freedom after 42 years of
repression," said Murhaf Jouejati, a Syria expert at George Washington
University. "Mr. Assad may fire all the people he wants, this still
doesn't touch on the basic issues and the basic demands of the

Witness accounts out of Syria could not be independently confirmed because
the regime has restricted media access to the country, refusing to grant
visas to journalists and detaining or expelling reporters already in the
country. Daraa has largely been sealed off and telephone calls go through
only sporadically.

But residents, who spoke to The Associated Press independently of each
other, said mosques were turned into makeshift hospitals to help tend to
hundreds of wounded.

One man who helped ferry the dead and wounded to the city's hospital said
he counted at least 13 corpses.

"My clothes are soaked with blood," he said by telephone from Daraa. Like
most activists and witnesses, he requested anonymity for fear of

A nurse at the hospital said they had run out of beds; many people were
being treated on the floor or in nearby mosques.

Videos posted on YouTube showed demonstrations in at least 15 towns, large
and small, across the country. The videos could not be independently
confirmed, but they appeared to show the most widespread gatherings since
protests began.

Ammar Qurabi, who heads Syria's National Organization for Human Rights,
said 32 people were killed nationwide: 25 in Daraa, three in the central
city of Homs, three in the Damascus suburb of Harasta and one in the
suburb of Douma.

Douma has become a flashpoint after eight people were shot dead there last

One activist said tens of thousands protested and dispersed peacefully in
the early afternoon, but he saw security forces open fire later in the
evening as a group tried to enter Douma. He said he saw security forces
taking a body away.

Protests were also reported in Latakia, which has a potentially volatile
mix of different religious groups. The city has seen violence in recent
weeks, and some fear it could take on a dangerous sectarian tone in

Syria had appeared immune to the unrest sweeping the Arab world until
three weeks ago, when security forces arrested a group of high school
students who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall in Daraa.

Protests then exploded in cities across the country.

A city of about 300,000 near the border with Jordan, Daraa is suffering
sustained economic effects from a yearslong drought.


AP writers Elizabeth A. Kennedy and Diaa Hadid in Cairo contributed to
this report.

Yemen's Saleh again rejects move to replace him

By Mohamed Sudam and Mohammed Ghobari – Reuters Fri Apr 8, 2011

SANAA (Reuters) – Protests in Yemen descended into violence on Friday in
which at least four people were killed and dozens wounded as President Ali
Abdullah Saleh rejected a Gulf Arab plan to secure an end to his 32 years
in power.

Saleh, facing an unprecedented challenge from hundreds of thousands of
protesters, initially accepted an offer by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf
Arab states, as part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), to hold talks
with the opposition.

On Wednesday, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said
the GCC would strike a deal for Saleh to leave.

But on Friday, Saleh told tens of thousands of supporters in the capital
Sanaa "We don't get our legitimacy from Qatar or from anyone else ... we
reject this belligerent intervention."

Frustration with the impasse may push the thousands of Yemenis who have
taken to the streets closer to violence. Two protesters were shot dead on
Friday, bringing the death toll from clashes with security forces this
week to at least 23.

"I don't think the GCC or the West want Yemen to go down the road of
Libya, because that's exactly where it's going," said Theodore Karasik, an
analyst at the Dubai based INEGMA group.

"The more entrenched Saleh gets, the greater the outside pressure, so this
could really illustrate how much influence outside powers actually have
over Yemen."

Clashes broke out in Taiz between hundreds of protesters and security
forces who fired gunshots and tear gas. Two protesters were shot dead and
25 wounded by gunfire, doctors said. Some 200 were hurt by tear gas

The protesters were carrying to the cemetery the bodies of five people
killed earlier in the week when police halted them.

In the port city of Aden, once the capital of an independent south, police
fired shots to disperse thousands of protesters. Some 15,000 gathered in
the Red Sea port of Hudaida to demand Saleh quit and mourn six killed in
protests there on Monday.

"We're tired of this poverty and oppression in Hudaida and all of Yemen,"
said protester Abdullah Fakira. "Enough already."

Some 40 percent of Yemen's 23 million people live on less than $2 a day
and a third face chronic hunger. Poverty and exasperation with rampant
corruption drove the pro-democracy protests that began over two months
ago, protesters say.


Even before the protests erupted, inspired by regional uprisings, Saleh
was struggling to quell a separatist rebellion in the south and a Shi'ite
insurgency in the north. The violence could give al Qaeda's Yemen-based
regional wing more room to operate.

All this adds to concern about stability in a country that sits on a
shipping lane through which more than three million barrels of oil pass
each day.

On Friday, local officials from Abyan, a center of militancy, told Reuters
that troops were trying to retake the city of Jaar, from which they
retreated two weeks ago saying they had been overpowered by militants.

Security forces surrounded Jaar with tanks and artillery and clashed with
"jihadist militants" who appeared to have fled, one official said. He said
troops would soon enter the city.

The United States and Yemen's key financial backer, Saudi Arabia, both
targets of attempted attacks by al Qaeda's Yemen-based branch, appear
ready to push aside their long-time ally to avoid a chaotic collapse.

Apparently trying to avoid a snub to Saleh's main backer, a presidential
aide told Reuters Saleh's comments were not aimed at Saudi Arabia's offer
to host GCC mediated talks.

"The president welcomes the efforts of our brothers in the Gulf to solve
the crisis but rejects statements from the Qatari prime minister which he
considers interference in Yemen's affairs," the aide said.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner released a statement saying
Washington welcomed the initiative.

"We strongly encourage all sides to engage in this urgently needed
dialogue to reach a solution supported by the Yemeni people," he said.
"President Saleh has publicly expressed his willingness to engage in a
peaceful transition of power; the timing and form of this transition
should be identified through negotiation and begin soon."

The Wall Street Journal said Washington froze its largest aid package to
Yemen in February, worth $1 billion or more over several years.

The Washington Post said a Yemeni opposition party leader had told a U.S.
embassy official in Sanaa there had been a secret plan to oust Saleh less
than two years ago.


Pro-democracy protesters held a "Friday of firmness" in Sanaa, shouting
"You're next, you leader of the corrupt," as armored vehicles and security
forces deployed across the city.

Some 4 km (2.5 miles) away, tens of thousands of Saleh loyalists marched,
waving pictures of the president and banners that read "No to terrorism,
no to sabotage."

Around 700 riot police took up position close to General Ali Mohsen's
forces. The veteran commander defected from Saleh weeks ago, and his
troops are protecting a Sanaa protest camp. He said again on Friday he
would not try to take over the country, as some diplomats had suggested.

The defense ministry said Mohsen's forces killed two pro-Saleh
demonstrators in Sanaa. Mohsen's forces were not immediately available for
comment. A Sanaa doctor confirmed two people were killed but had no
information on their attackers.

Talks with the opposition to negotiate a transition stalled weeks ago, and
the GCC initiative is having trouble obtaining agreement from the parties.

"We want this regime to go. Enough lying and oppression. The initiative
came late and the only initiative we want is one to make him step down,"
said Mahfouz Salam, 45, a Sanaa protester.

The GCC plan would guarantee one key Saleh demand -- that he and his
family get immunity from prosecution -- an opposition source said on
Thursday, but youth activists rejected the idea.

(Additional reporting by Khaled al-Mahdi in Taiz and Mohammed Mukhashaf in
Aden; Writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by Nick Macfie and Tim Pearce)

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