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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Thousands call for freedom in Syria, 3 killed in unrest


Syrian security forces killed at least three protesters in a Damascus suburb on Friday, witnesses said, as thousands turned out in pro-democracy marches despite a reform gesture by President Bashar al-Assad.

Activists said Syrians took to the streets after Friday prayers in the capital Damascus, Homs to the north of the capital, Banias on the coast, Latakia port and the southern city of Deraa, where the unprecedented protests challenging Assad's 11 years in power began in March.

Witnesses in the Damascus suburb of Douma said the three killed were among at least 2,000 people who chanted "Freedom. Freedom. One, one, one. The Syrian people are one," when police opened fire to disperse them from Municipality Square.

A photo distributed by one activist showed protesters pelting police forces with stones in Douma, which links Damascus with the northern countryside.

An official source said via state news agency SANA "armed groups" had positioned themselves on rooftops and opened fire on citizens and security forces gathered in Douma, killing and wounding dozens.

SANA said a group had also opened fire on a gathering in the Bayyada district of the western city of Homs, killing a girl, adding soldiers had also come under fire in Deraa.

In his first public appearance since the demonstrations began, Assad declined on Wednesday to spell out any reforms, especially the lifting of a 48-year-old emergency law that has been used to stifle opposition and justify arbitrary arrests.

"There is no confidence. President Assad talks about reform and does nothing," said Montaha al-Atrash, board member of the independent Syrian human rights organization Sawasiah.


In Deraa, thousands of people gathered at Serail Square, chanting slogans denouncing hints by Assad's to replace emergency law with anti-terrorism legislation and describing rich relatives of the president as "thieves."

Music played from loudspeakers, including the song "Where are the millions?" by Lebanese singer Julia Boutrous. Secret police and regular police forces kept their distance but the army maintained heavy presence around Deraa, including tanks. A Reuters witness saw two tanks positioned near Deraa.

Assad, who became president after his father Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, had predicted the popular revolts seen in Tunisia and Egypt would not spread to Syria, saying the ruling hierarchy was "very closely linked to the beliefs of the people."

But for the past two weeks thousands of Syrians have turned out demanding greater freedoms in the tightly controlled Arab state, posing the gravest challenge to almost 50 years of monolithic Baath Party rule.

More than 60 people have been killed in the unrest, which could have wider repercussions since Syria has an anti-Israel alliance with Iran and supports militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.

SANA news agency acknowledged for the first time on Friday that worshippers in Deraa and Latakia, scene of protests and deadly clashes last week, had gathered after Friday prayers to call for accelerated reforms.

It had earlier reported calm across the country, adding there had been peaceful calls for reform and several gatherings supporting "national unity and ... stability."


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