x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

More dead in Syrian protests

Activists say at least 20 protesters have been killed as thousands turned out in Deraa, which has become the focal point for unprecedented public dissidence.

DAMASCUS // Demonstrations spread in Syria yesterday, with reports of more killings near the southern city of Deraa and elsewhere in the country less than 24 hours after the authorities vowed live ammunition would not be used against protesters and that political reforms were being considered.

Human rights activists said as many as 20 people could have been killed in Deraa when heavily armed security forces opened fire on crowds after they set fire to a statue of former president Hafez al Assad. That number could not be confirmed with journalists denied access to the city.

There were additional claims by activists of shootings in the coastal city of Latakia and Homs. The Syrian government said the situation nationwide was calm.

Thousands of residents turned out in Deraa, which has become the focal point for unprecedented public dissidence.

Last week security forces killed dozens of protesting civilians there, according to civil rights groups and eye witnesses, although the government refutes that and blames gangs of militants for the deaths.

More of those killed in earlier violence this week were buried yesterday, and security units appeared to have pulled back from the city centre, although they continued to surround the area.

A senior official said on Thursday that the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, had prohibited the use of live ammunition by police and security agents to prevent an escalation of unrest.

"I was a witness to the instructions of his excellency [Mr Assad] that live ammunition should not be fired - even if the police, security forces or officers of the status were being killed," Bouthaina Shaaban, a top presidential adviser, said on Thursday.

She made the remark at a press conference while unveiling a series of possible political reforms and announcing a 30 per cent salary increase for all government employees.

In central Damascus yesterday, a march by some 200 people shouting their support for Deraa and calling for "freedom" was quickly broken up by police. Security had been reinforced in the capital in expectation of such protests.

The government also mobilised its own supporters, with a crowd of young men shouting their loyalty to Mr Assad converging on the Umayyad mosque, in the Old City of Damascus, just as Friday afternoon prayers were taking place.

Holding aloft photos of the president, they marched into the mosque courtyard - ignoring the usual requirement that shoes be removed on entry - chanted for a few minutes next to the prayer halls and then moved outside, where they stayed until worshippers had left.

There was a brief scuffle after that, and at least one man was bundled into a waiting police car. Two weeks ago, at the same time and place, calls for "freedom" had been shouted as prayers finished.

Large numbers of presidential supporters also paraded through Damascus yesterday, waving flags and holding photographs showing the ruler and his father, Hafez al Assad, the former president.

One pro-government group walking through the city chanted "Bashar, Syria, Bashar - it's enough", a variation on the more commonly heard slogan, "God, Syria, Bashar - it's enough". Anti-government protesters have subverted the chant to their own ends, replacing the president's name with "freedom".

Displays of presidential support took place in cities across the country. Anti-government protests were more limited, although there were reports of demonstrations in Homs, Raqqa, Latakia and various suburbs of Damascus.

So far demonstrators critical of the government have not aimed their ire directly at the president, referring instead to the ruling elites and calling for political reforms and an end to rampant corruption.

The government has called these demands "just" and announced measures designed to defuse the protests which, drawing inspiration from Deraa, appear now to be spreading.

Among the steps the government says it is considering are the possibility of scrapping repressive emergency laws that have been in place for almost 50 years, and drawing up legislation to license opposition political parties. At the moment, only the ruling Baath party and affiliates are allowed to operate in the country.

Activists involved in the protests said these steps fell far short of what was needed in order to meet their demands, and repeated a call for the emergency law to be scrapped immediately.

The government also announced this week additional bonuses and salary increases of up to 30 per cent for public sector employees, a move that was greeted with relief by many who have been struggling to cope with spiralling prices.

The state remains the largest employer in the country, despite recent economic reforms that have given the private sector a much increased role.

Events in Syria are now moving extremely rapidly. Until two weeks ago, the revolutionary wave that has engulfed the Middle East appeared to have missed Damascus. Although protests have escalated, they remain small and isolated, with no clear leadership or coherency to the demonstrations.