Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Syrian Security Forces Crackdown

Gunfire in Locked-down Syrian City

Reports of shooting as thousands protest in Homs while Syrian government claims country is facing "armed insurrection".

Al Jazeera
19 April 2011

Gunfire erupted overnight in the Syrian city of Homs where thousands of pro-reform protesters had gathered in the main square, a day after activists said at least 25 people were killed there.

An activist on the ground told Al Jazeera that security forces had opened fire on protesters. At least two people were reported injured while tear gas has also been used, according to Al Jazeera's correspondent in Damascus, Cal Perry.

Homs was shut down by the army with three rings of checkpoints surrounding the city, our correspondent said. Security forces had given protesters until 2.30am to clear the square, but gunfire was reported at 2.15am.

Most of the square was cleared with people scattering across the city, according to our correspondent. But some protesters say they are afraid to go to hospitals.

"They are afraid if they go to the hospitals the security forces will be waiting for them there and they will end up in detention," our correspondent said.

The latest protests against president Bashar al-Assad's ten-year rule come as Syria's interior ministry on Monday night said the country was facing an "armed insurrection".

The government blames armed gangs for the unrest and says several members of the security forces have been killed and wounded in days of violence.

"Some of these groups have called for armed insurrection under the motto of Jihad to set up a Salafist state," the ministry said in a statement. "What they did is an ugly crime severely punished by law. Their objective is to spread terror across Syria."

A protester who gave his name as Rami earlier told Al Jazeera that thousands people were staging a sit-in in the centre of Homs and would "continue to protest until the regime is overthrown".

Suhair Atassi, a prominent rights activist, said 10,000 people were at the square late on Monday night.

Some tents were raised and protesters said they had renamed the Al-Saa (Clock) Square 'Tahrir Square', in reference to the focal point of the uprising in Egypt which led to the ousting of former president Hosni Mubarak.

Earlier in the day, thousands attended the funerals for protesters killed in Homs, shouting slogans against Assad, who succeeded his father as president in 2000, continuing an era of Baath Party rule stretching back to a 1963 coup.

Witnesses said mourners chanted "From alleyway to alleyway, from house to house, we want to overthrow you, Bashar," and "Either freedom or death, the people want to topple this regime".

Monday's protests were the largest to hit Syria's third largest city since protests in the country began one month ago.

"I'm 45 years old. It's the first time in my life I break the barrier of silence, the first time I feel freedom," a protester who gave his name as Abu Omar told Al Jazeera.

"The regime does not wish us to enjoy freedom or dignity. For decades we've been ruled by an iron fist, by the force of weapon."

Demonstrations were also reported in the southern city of Daraa, in the Barzeh district of the capital, Damascus, and in Ain al-Arab in the mainly Kurdish north. About 1,500 people gathered at the Shaghour bridge between Aleppo and Latakia in the morning.

Homs violence

A protester in Homs told Al Jazeera that protesters were killed after evening prayers on Sunday when a group of around 40 demonstrators gathered outside the Bab al-Sibaa mosque chanting "freedom".

The protester, who gave his name as Abu Haider, said seven cars pulled up to the protesters and men in civilian clothes jumped out and opened fire on the crowd without warning.

The nearby town of Talbiseh, where activists said five people were killed on Sunday, was sealed off by government forces on Monday.

Walid al-Muallem, Syria's foreign minister, met foreign ambassadors earlier in the day and told them that reforms are on their way and that peaceful protest will be tolerated, but not destruction of government properties and other disruptive behaviour.

The latest developments came two days after Assad said Syria's decades-long emergency laws would be lifted within a week and also promised a number of other reforms.

Despite the apparent concessions, nationwide protests were held on Sunday, which was Syria's Independence Day, commemorating the departure of the last French soldier 65 years ago.

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