x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

13 more die despite Syria’s pledge to halt the violence

Syrian opposition groups call for a large turnout after Friday prayers to challenge whether the regime would make good on the agreement to refrain from using deadly force.

Demonstrators protesting against Syria's President Bashar Al Assad gather near Homs Friday. Despite efforts by the Arab League to end the violence, Syrian forces killed at least 13 protesters Friday.
Demonstrators protesting against Syria's President Bashar Al Assad gather near Homs Friday. Despite efforts by the Arab League to end the violence, Syrian forces killed at least 13 protesters Friday.

BEIRUT // Syrian security forces killed 13 more protesters yesterday as thousands took to the streets to test whether the Bashar Al Assad regime would keep its promise to end violence.

The continuing bloodshed was a blow to the Arab League, which announced on Wednesday that Damascus had agreed to a broad plan that included beginning talks with the opposition and withdrawing troops from the streets.

Opposition groups called for a large turnout after Friday prayers to challenge whether the regime would make good on the agreement to refrain from using deadly force. Gunfire erupted shortly after the protests began, in the same pattern as previous Fridays for months.

"This regime is not serious about ending its brutal crackdown," said Mustafa Osso, a human rights lawyer in Syria. "Today was a real test for the intentions of the regime and the answer is clear to everyone who wants to see.

"The regime is playing for time and has absolutely no intention of abiding by the agreement."

Thousands of protesters took part in yesteday's demonstrations. "Arab League, beware of Bashar Assad," read one banner carried by protesters in Homs, where the government crackdown on demonstrators has been particularly harsh. "What dialogue are you talking about?" read another.

Most opposition leaders refuse to meet Mr Al Assad because of the crackdown, and protesters demand instead that he resign. The United Nations says about 3,000 people have died in eight months of protests.

Two activist groups, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordinating Committees, said at least 13 people were killed yesterday, mostly in Homs and suburbs of Damascus.

Under the Arab League accord announced on Wednesday in Cairo, the Syrian government agreed to pull tanks and armoured vehicles out of cities, stop violence against protesters and release all political prisoners.

It also agreed to allow journalists, rights groups and Arab League representatives to monitor the situation.

Activists said yesterday's rallies were largest in Homs, Syria's third-largest city and home to about 800,000 people, where the crackdown has been deadliest.

On Thursday, at least 18 people were killed in a security crackdown there.

One resident said mass marches formed after Friday prayers in most districts of the city, despite the heavy security presence and violence of the past days.

"They are big, they are calling for the downfall of the regime and they aim to show that the Arab League agreement is a joke," he said.

Demonstrations also took place in the southern province of Daraa and in the eastern cities of Deir El Zour and Qamishli.

In the coastal town of Banias, security forces beat worshippers as they came out of the Abu Bakr Al Siddiq mosque. They then blockaded dozens more inside the building so they could not join the march.

The government has largely sealed off the country from foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting, making it difficult to confirm events on the ground. Key sources of information are amateur videos posted online, witness accounts and details gathered by activist groups.

The Arab League accord is the latest in a string of international efforts to ease the crisis, which has led to widespread condemnation of the regime and international calls for Mr Al Assad to step down.

The 46-year-old president retains a firm grip on power, in part because he has the support of the business classes and religious minority groups. He also appears to retain the backing of most of the military, despite some defections.