x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Dozens killed on Syria’s worst day yet of violence

The protests came less than 24 hours after President Bashar al Assad formally ended almost five decades of martial law, in theory massively curtailing the powers of Syria's security forces and ushering in a new era of civil liberties.

Anti-government protesters march during a demonstration following Friday prayers near Damascus on April 22.
Anti-government protesters march during a demonstration following Friday prayers near Damascus on April 22.

DAMASCUS // Security forces fired live ammunition and tear gas on anti-government demonstrations yesterday, killing dozens of people nationwide and wounding scores more, according to human rights monitors, in the bloodiest day in Syria since protests began.

The violence that has already hit other parts of the country arrived conclusively in the capital, with at least 20 protesters fatally shot in Damascus neighbourhoods, activists said.

Human rights organisations said at least 70 people had been killed, and warned that number was likely to rise.

The protests came less than 24 hours after President Bashar al Assad formally ended almost five decades of martial law, in theory massively curtailing the powers of Syria's security forces and ushering in a new era of civil liberties.

In the afternoon, just before a torrent of rain swept across Damascus, gunfire erupted in the residential area of Barzeh, a short distance from the city centre. With smoke rising into the sky, heavily reinforced security units sealed the area off.

A witness described fighting breaking out when demonstrators leaving two local mosques began shouting for freedom, and were attacked by a pro-government crowd.

"They finished prayers and started shouting, some were shouting against the president and then pro-government people came rushing down and stared to fight them," he said. "The police and security forces stood with the pro-government gangs. There was shooting, burning cars, fighting."

Three protesters were reportedly killed there, although human rights monitors said details were hard to confirm.

None of the casualty figures can be independently verified. As of last night, official government sources had mentioned only "injuries" not deaths.

Damascus was all but locked down yesterday, with many routes into the city cut off by security forces, and the army deployed around neighbourhoods to the south, including Maadamiyah, some seven kilometres from the city centre. A large demonstration was underway there yesterday afternoon and witnesses reported heavy gunfire with five killed and, last night, troops moving in.

In two other Damascus suburbs, Hajar Aswad and Qaborn, a total of 16 people were killed, according to witnesses. Mosques in Qaborn called mourning for six people yesterday evening.

As night fell, residents said thousands of men, women and children were demonstrating in the streets of Hajar Aswad, a poor area of the city with strong connections to powerful national tribes, after 10 people were shot there earlier in the day.

Traffic police, usually carrying no more than a pistol, had been issued assault rifles. The green busses used for public transport were being used to ferry plain-clothes security reinforcements to flashpoints. More than a dozen bus loads of men in civilian clothes carrying sticks arrived at Abbaseen square, witnesses said.

"There were groups of men carrying iron bars and wooden clubs just hanging around at the gas station on the square and standing in the street, waiting for any protesters, the police were standing with them and directing the busses as they arrived," a witness said.

In the adjacent Christian neighbourhoods, the usual public festivities to mark Good Friday had been cancelled. Shops were closed, and few people were on the streets. Young men with clubs stood in the road near the French hospital, witnesses said.

Anti-government demonstrators had said they would try to march to Abbaseen square, moving from northern suburbs of Harasta through Arbeen, Zamalka and then Jobar before arriving in the central area, building up momentum as they came. They didn't make it that far, as security units were apparently successful in isolating the protests.

Earlier, police had fired tear gas at hundreds of protesters in Midan, a middle-class area not far from downtown Damascus.

If the Syrian capital had, until yesterday, been relatively isolated from public shows of dissent and an iron-fisted response by security units, other parts of the country, much more familiar with the cycle

of Friday protests and bloodshed, experienced it once again.

Activists said at least 14 people, including Anwar Moussa, an 11-year-old boy, were killed in Izreh, a town near Deraa, where protests erupted last month. In Homs, Syria's third-largest city, at least three people were killed, human rights monitors said, adding that another two were killed in Hama and two more in the port city of Latakia.

State-run news acknowledged protests had taken place, including thousands of people chanting for freedom and in support of martyrs in Deraa. It said most demonstrations had been peaceful but noted security units had intervened in some areas using non-lethal force, tear gas and water cannon with "injuries" sustained during the confrontations.

Mr Assad issued legislation on Thursday allowing public demonstrations - as long as they had advance permission from the minister of interior, a process that takes at least five days. Civil rights activists said the security clampdown yesterday made a mockery of Thursday's reforms and showed that nothing has changed regardless of the new laws.

The Syrian authorities, however, have insisted that real reforms are underway and that there is no more need to protest. Senior officials have also made it clear they consider legitimate public demonstrations to have been hijacked by foreign-backed groups intent on destabilising the country, blaming violence on militant Islamists.

Most of Syria's 23 million people have not joined in with protests, with the silent majority apparently still supporting Mr Assad and his promises of reform. Yet an increasingly active and growing minority appear to be joining anti-government protests and has begun calling for the president's resignation.

psands@thenational.ae