x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

More deaths dim protesters' hopes that violence will end

Protesters' hopes that violence in Syria would lessen are crushed when they learn that 25 people are killed by security forces in Homs.

DAMASCUS // Hopes that Friday's peaceful protests and Saturday's address by President Bashar al Assad would curb bloodshed in Syria faded yesterday after as many as 25 people were killed in Homs on Sunday night.

Throughout yesterday, updated casualty figures filtered through, with activists first believing that four people had been killed, then eight. By the evening that number had risen to 25, a death toll the satellite news channel Al Jazeera English said it had confirmed.

Activists said security units were responsible for the shootings, when protesters took to the streets after a leading sheikh died in police custody. Demonstrators in Homs also smashed an enormous statue - one of the largest in the country - of the former president Hafez al Assad, Mr Assad's father.

Different sources continued to make differing casualty claims yesterday evening, however. The National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria confirmed at least eight dead protesters in Homs and a nearby village, with another four killed in clashes with security forces in the northern cities of Latakia and Idleb.

As has become customary, Syrian state run media gave a vastly different picture, making no mention of problems in Latakia and saying that one police officer was killed and 11 others injured when "a group of armed criminals opened fire on them" in Homs on Sunday.

The government said security forces were dispatched to clear the main highway between Damascus and Aleppo, which had been blocked near Homs by gunmen who were "terrorising" civilians. Officials said three of the gunmen were shot and killed and another 15 wounded by the army.

Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said yesterday peaceful protests were allowed but accused demonstrators of "sabotage". "The reforms will continue and peaceful protests are authorised, but the recourse to violence and sabotage is unacceptable," he was quoted as saying by Syrian news agency Sana.

There was also growing alarm among Syrian human-rights monitors about the situation in the port city of Latakia, with one campaigner saying he believed a "very serious" incident had taken place there on Sunday night. Intense gunfire was heard in the city at the time, but there have been no precise or confirmable details about what might have happened.

The Syrian army was previously dispatched to Latakia amid warnings by the government that a sectarian conflict was in danger of breaking out. The city's population is principally divided between Sunnis, and Allawites, a minority Shiite sect that includes the ruling family.

Many anti-government activists dismissed the possibility of communal strife, saying it was an act of fear mongering by the authorities, which have long maintained they are all that stands between Syria and civil war. Most protests have made a point of stressing peaceful unity between Syria's various sects and ethnic groups.

Thousands took part in the funeral processions for eight of the dead protesters in Homs yesterday, with many of them chanting for the downfall of the regime, according to eyewitnesses.

Some 5,000 demonstrators then staged a sit-in at the central square, vowing not to leave until the president departs from office.

At least 200 civilians have been killed since public protests began in Syria more than a month ago, human-rights groups say. The government puts the real number at closer to 30, with dozens of security personnel killed or injured. A committee has been set up to investigate the deaths in two key flashpoints, the southern city of Deraa and Latakia.

The Syrian authorities and their supporters blame foreign-backed terrorist groups for the attacks, a claim that is viewed with scepticism by many Syrians who suspect that pro-government gunmen are involved.

There had been hopes that Friday's protests signaled an end to an iron fisted security response to public dissent. After negotiations between community leaders and the authorities last week, security units were pulled back in Deraa and Banias, with protests allowed to take place.

Mr Assad also met with delegations from some of the affected areas and expressed his condolences to families for the loss of loved ones. On Saturday, he spoke to newly appointed government ministers in a televised address, telling them to lift draconian emergency laws by the end of this week.

Ending the state of emergency, which gives the Syria enormous security apparatus carte blanche to do as it pleases, has been a key demand of protesters.

However, the speech appeared to have little sway with demonstrators, who took to the streets immediately afterwards and the following day -

Syrian independence day - when the fatal shootings happened in Homs.