Friday, April 29, 2011

Syrian rights group says 42 killed nationwide

By BASSEM MROUE, Associated Press April 29, 2011

BEIRUT – Security forces opened fire Friday on demonstrators trying to
break an army blockade on the southern city of Daraa, while thousands of
others across Syria defied a protest ban and denounced President Bashar
Assad's harsh crackdown on a six-week uprising. At least 42 people were
killed, including 15 in the march on Daraa, according to witnesses and a
human rights group.

The protesters in cities across Syria — including the capital of Damascus
— called for Assad's ouster, with some chanting "We are not afraid!"

Human rights activist Mustafa Osso said 42 people were killed, but the
death toll could rise. His human rights group, based in Syria, compiles
casualty tolls from the crackdown.

A witness in Daraa — the heart of the uprising — said residents stayed
indoors because the city has been under siege by the military since
Monday, when thousands of soldiers backed by tanks and snipers stormed in.
People were too afraid even to venture out to mosques for prayers, the
witness said.

"We are in our houses but our hearts are in the mosques," the witness
said, speaking by satellite telephone and asking that his name not be
published for fear of reprisals.

Large demonstrations broke out in Damascus, the central city of Homs, the
coastal cities of Banias and Latakia, the northern cities of Raqqa and
Hama, and the northeastern town of Qamishli.

In Damascus' central Midan neighborhood, witnesses said about 2,000 people
marched and chanted, "God, Syria and freedom only!" in a heavy rain, but
security forces opened fire with bullets and tear gas, scattering them.

"Oh great Syrian army! Lift the blockade on Daraa!" protesters chanted in
the Damascus suburb of Barzeh, according to video footage posted by
activists on YouTube.

The government had warned against holding any demonstrations Friday and
placed large banners around the capital that read: "We urge the brother
citizens to avoid going out of your homes on Friday for your own safety."
Syrian TV said the Interior Ministry has not approved any "march,
demonstration or sit-in" and that such rallies seek only to harm Syria's
security and stability.

Since the uprising in Syria began in mid-March, inspired by revolts across
the Arab world, more than 450 people have been killed nationwide,
activists say.

Assad's attempts to crush the revolt — the gravest challenge to his
family's 40-year ruling dynasty — have drawn international criticism.

The U.S. hit three top Syrian officials, Syria's intelligence agency and
Iran's Revolutionary Guard with sanctions. The sanctions affect Maher
Assad, Assad's brother and commander of the Syrian Army's Fourth Armored
Division, which is accused of carrying out the worst atrocities in Daraa;
Assad cousin Atif Najib, the former head of the Political Security
Directorate in Daraa Province; and intelligence chief Ali Mamluk, the
White House said.

Although Assad himself is not among those hit with sanctions, officials
said he could be named at a later date if the crackdown continues.

Assad's government says the protests are a foreign conspiracy carried out
by extremist forces and armed thugs, not true reform-seekers.

Syrian TV said military and police forces came under attack Friday by
"armed terrorists" in Daraa and the central city of Homs, killing four
soldiers and three police officers. Two soldiers were captured, the report
said. The station also said one of its cameramen was injured in Latakia in
an attack by an armed gang.

Outside Homs, thousands chanted "We don't love you!" and "Bye, bye Bashar!
We will see you in The Hague!" as the sound of gunfire crackled in the

A devastating picture was emerging of Daraa — which has been without
electricity, water and telephones since Monday — as residents flee to
neighboring countries. Daraa is where the uprising kicked off, sparked by
the arrest of teenagers who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall.

Residents inside the city begged for international intervention Friday.

"Nobody can move in (Daraa), they have snipers on the high roofs," a
resident told The Associated Press using a satellite phone. "They are
firing at everything."

At the Jordanian side of the Syrian border, several Daraa residents who
had just crossed over said there is blood on the streets of the city.

"Gunfire is heard across the city all the time," one man said, asking that
his name not be used for fear of retribution. "People are getting killed
in the streets by snipers if they leave their homes."

An AP reporter at the border heard gunfire and saw smoke rising from
different areas just across the frontier. Residents said the gunfire has
been constant for three weeks.

Assad's regime has stepped up its deadly crackdown on protesters in recent
days by unleashing the army along with snipers and tanks. On Friday,
protesters came out in their thousands, defying the crackdown and using it
as a rallying cry.

Syria has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted access to trouble
spots since the uprising began, making it almost impossible to verify the
dramatic events shaking one of the most authoritarian, anti-Western
regimes in the Arab world.

A witness in Latakia said about 1,000 people turned out for an
anti-government rally when plainclothes security agents with automatic
rifles opened fire. He said he saw at least five people wounded. Like many
witnesses contacted by The Associated Press, he asked that his name not be
used for fear of reprisal.

The Muslim Brotherhood urged Syrians to demonstrate Friday against Assad
in the first time the outlawed group has openly encouraged the protests in
Syria. The Brotherhood was crushed by Assad's father, Hafez, after staging
an uprising against his regime in 1982.

"You were born free, so don't let a tyrant enslave you," said the
statement, issued by the Brotherhood's exiled leadership.

But he has acknowledged the need for reforms, offering overtures of change
in recent weeks while brutally cracking down on demonstrations.

Last week, Syria's Cabinet abolished the state of emergency, in place for
decades, and approved a new law allowing the right to stage peaceful
protests with the permission of the Interior Ministry.

But the protesters, enraged by the mounting death toll, no longer appear
satisfied with the changes and are increasingly seeking the regime's

"The people want the downfall of the regime," said an activist in the
coastal city of Banias — echoing the cries heard during the Egyptian and
Tunisian revolutions.

Witnesses and human rights groups said Syrian army units clashed with each
other over following Assad's orders to crack down on protesters in Daraa,
where the uprising started.

While the troops' infighting in Daraa does not indicate any decisive
splits in the military, it is significant because Assad's army has always
been the regime's fiercest defender.

It is the latest sign that cracks — however small — are developing in
Assad's base of support that would have been unimaginable just weeks ago.
Also, about 200 mostly low-level members of Syria's ruling Baath Party
have resigned over Assad's brutal crackdown.

Meanwhile, diplomats say the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency is setting the
stage for potential U.N. Security Council action on Syria as it prepares a
report assessing that a Syrian target bombed by Israeli warplanes in 2007
was likely a secretly built nuclear reactor meant to produce plutonium.

Such a conclusion would back intelligence produced by Israel and the
United States. Syria says the nearly finished building had no nuclear
uses. It has repeatedly turned down requests by the International Atomic
Energy Agency to revisit the site after allowing an initial 2008
inspection that found evidence of possible nuclear activities.

Three diplomats and a senior U.N. official said such an assessment — drawn
up by IAEA chief Yukiya Amano — would be the basis of a Western-sponsored
resolution at a meeting of the 35-nation IAEA board that condemns Syria's
refusal to cooperate with the agency and kicks the issue to the U.N.
Security Council. All spoke on condition of anonymity because the
information they discussed was confidential.

Separately, the U.N. Human Rights Council approved an investigation of
Syria's crackdown and demanded that the nation immediately release
political prisoners and lift restrictions on journalists and the Internet.
The action came on a 26-9 vote, with 7 abstentions. Opposition among many
Arab and African nations forced the U.S.-drafted resolution to be watered
down to omit Syria's unopposed candidacy for the council.


Associated Press writers Jamal Halaby at the Jordanian-Syrian border, Diaa
Hadid in Cairo, Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut, John Heilprin in Geneva,
George Jahn in Vienna and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this

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