Syrian security opens fire on protesters in city square

McClatchy NewspapersApril 18, 2011 

BEIRUT — Syrian police early Tuesday reportedly opened fire on thousands of protesters who'd occupied a key square in the Syrian city of Homs hours earlier to demand the resignation of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The gunfire was the latest sign that the monthlong anti-Assad rebellion is continuing to gain momentum.

Al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite news channel, reported that the demonstrators scattered after the gunfire. The channel's report said at least two people were injured, but the toll of dead and injured was possibly higher. The news channel said its correspondent reported that injured people were afraid to go to the hospital.

The demonstrators had said they planned to camp overnight in the square, and thousands had gathered there Monday after a funeral for eight protesters who were killed in the city Sunday during clashes with police.

Assad's government has seesawed between brutal repression and more restrained attacks on demonstrators that have left many analysts of Syrian events grasping to explain whether the response is an effort to curb the regime's worst abuses or a sign of confusion within the government on how to respond to a movement that appears to be unintimidated.

Nadim Houry, a Beirut-based analyst for Human Rights Watch who's monitored Syria for six years, said that he believes the confusion has arisen in part because Assad regime's has always been able to argue that leaving him in power guarantees stability in an unstable region. But the continued protests have cast doubt on that pledge.

Adding to the confusion is that every time Assad has offered reforms, it's been followed by a crackdown.

"The government is trying to negotiate but the social contract (the promise of stability) is broken," Houry said. "And people have no reason to believe promises of reform."

Video on YouTube of Sunday's protests in Homs showed bullets and blood on the ground along with the sound of machine gun fire. In another video, crowds of men run along what appears to be a rural street and crawl on the ground as bullets whiz overhead.

On Monday, a YouTube video showed what purported to be the funeral of one of the protesters. The crowd, made up exclusively of men, chanted "One! One! One! The Syrian people are one!" as it the corpse covered by a white sheet.

Authenticating the source of videos is nearly impossible. Syrians who post the footage online remain anonymous for fear of government retaliation. Witnesses in Homs could not be reached for comment.

Assad in recent days has promised that the government would soon end the emergency law that allows it to detain and arrest citizens. Each time he's made the pledge though, police followed up by taking to the streets and shooting protesters.

The government has also announced it would grant citizenship to the Kurdish population, but this was largely seen as an attempt to prevent the estimated 300,000 Kurds living in limbo from joining protests. Assad also replaced half of his Cabinet, but stacked it with loyalists.

The result has been only rising calls for more protests.

"People are not going back. People are on the streets every day," said Marah Bukai, the founder and president of the Al Wares Institute of Humanitarian Studies in Washington.

"People are determined to get their freedom," Bukai said.

"This system is not fulfilling the demands of the people and especially the Syrian youth. We are calling for a change. We need to be a democratic country run by a democratic system," said Mazen Darwish, an activist in Damascus. "We need to see our country developing and being a civilized country."

A group from the southern town of Daraa — where protests first erupted a month ago — issued a statement that called for repeal of the emergency law, democratic elections, presidential term limits, freedom of expression and an independent judiciary.

On Saturday Assad gave a speech to his new Cabinet promising the emergency law would be repealed within a week, but he also implied that dissent would not be tolerated.

"We will not be lenient toward sabotage," he said on state television.

Human rights groups estimate at least 220 people have died in the month-old uprising, including the eight on Sunday.

Assad, a ophthalmologist trained in Great Britain, came to power in 2001 following the death of his father, who ruled the country for nearly 30 years. He had gained popularity in Syria and in the Arab world for appearing to take a stand against the West, particularly the U.S. and Israel, but has drawn the ire of Washington. The Obama administration is nervously monitoring the situation in Syria, which shares borders with five strategic U.S. partners: Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel.

(Bossone is a McClatchy special correspondent. Contributing from Cairo were Nancy A. Youssef and special correspondent Mohannad Sabry.)


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