x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Syrian forces storm mosque

While taking control of the Omari mosque can be viewed as a symbolic victory for the government, analysts doubt that it will deter the ongoing protest movement.

DAMASCUS // Syrian soldiers backed by tanks and helicopters stormed a mosque at the centre of the rebellion in Deraa yesterday, according to witnesses who said the city's old quarter was heavily shelled during the assault.

Reports from inside the besieged city put the death toll at four protesters, including the son of the mosque's imam. While taking control of the Omari mosque can be viewed as a symbolic

victory for the government, analysts doubt that it will deter the ongoing protest movement.

The mosque, in the centre of Deraa, has been at the heart of an uprising since protests began in Syria last month, acting as a rallying point and providing shelter and medical aid to demonstrators injured by security forces. It has become a well-known symbol of anti-government defiance.

A raid against the mosque on March 23, a few days after the opening public demonstration in Deraa, was the first major offensive byheavily armed security units against protest organisers. That assault left at least six people dead and further inflamed tensions.

The mosque's imam, Sheikh Ahmad Sayasna, was involved in early mediation efforts and part of a delegation from Deraa that held talks with President Bashar al Assad. At the time imam described the meeting as positive, saying he now felt free for the first time in his life.

As the uprising continued to grow, in Deraa and other towns and cities across Syria, the authorities decided to end the revolt by force. Army units were ordered into Deraa on Monday, in a move designed to

decisively crush the rebellion's epicentre.

Soldiers from the 4th Armoured Division have been in the city since that time, according to residents, with human-rights monitors claiming that more than 80 civilians have been killed during military operations.

Media reports quoted a Deraa resident as saying snipers were deployed on the roof of the Omari mosque yesterday afternoon, and that shelling by tanks had finally stopped.

The Syrian authorities claim to be fighting an uprising by militant Islamic extremists, and have described the Omari mosque as the centre of what they say is a foreign-backed terrorist campaign.

After the initial demonstration in Deraa, on March 18, when the first four protesting civilians were shot by security units, Syrian state-run media reported that infiltrators had hijacked a gathering near

the mosque.

The government justified the March 23 raid by claiming an "armed gang" had stockpiled weapons and ammunition in the mosque, and kidnapped children to use as human shields.

A Syrian analyst said it was unlikely the authorities' gaining control of the Omari mosque yesterday would prove to be a substantial victory.

"The army may have taken mosque but it's hard to see how that will bring the demonstrations to and end, it has gone far beyond that point now," he said.

Between the first raid on the mosque last month and yesterday's assault, more than 550 civilians have been killed nationwide, at demonstrations and funerals, according to human0-rights groups, with hundreds more arrested.

Those figures are disputed by the Syrian government, which says almost 80 security personnel have died in the line of duty, with some 70 civilians killed. The deaths have been blamed on "armed gangs".

Also yesterday in the Deraa region, another 138 rank-and-file members resigned from the ruling Baath party in protest of the military assault, according to local activists. Another 200 members had resigned in Deraa earlier in the week, while some local MPs and council members have also quit their official posts.

In Damascus yesterday, 50 women staged a protest march in the central shopping area, near the parliament building, shouting their support for Deraa. Slogans of solidarity with the besieged southern city have been

regularly chanted at anti-government rallies involving tens of thousands of people nationwide.

Protesters have been demanding reforms to Syria's autocratic system of government, which is heavily supported by secret security agencies. Mr al Assad has promised political reforms and said, as a consequence, there is no justification for further protests.

psands@thenational.ae