x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Sixteen die as Syrian uprising enters fourth month

Yesterday's worst violence was in the central city of Homs, Syria's third-largest urban area, where eight protesters were fatally shot by security forces, according to activists.

DAMASCUS // Syria's uprising entered its fourth month yesterday with another Friday of demonstrations and bloodshed, and the violence spilled into Lebanon for the first time.

Activists said at least 16 protesters were killed by security forces at anti-regime rallies across Syria yesterday, adding to a civilian death toll that rights groups say now exceeds 1,400.

In neighbouring Lebanon, gunmen opened fire on hundreds of protesters in the northern city of Tripoli, who were holding a demonstration in support of Syrian dissidents. A hand grenade was thrown into the crowd, according to Lebanese officials, with one person reportedly killed.

"Tripoli was a message from the Syrian regime," said an Damascus-based independent political analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"They want to make it clear that if life gets difficult for them, it will get difficult for everyone."

The Tripoli clashes appeared to be sectarian, involving Alawites and Sunnis. Syria's autocratic ruling elite, drawn from the country's Alawite minority, have long warned that instability at home would unsettle the entire region, particularly in Lebanon where Damascus still holds major influence.

Syrian activists have been at pains to stress the nonsectarian nature of their uprising, which has involved members from across ethnic and sectarian groups. Yet tensions are increasing and members of minority communities have expressed fears about what they believe could amount to a takeover by the country's Sunni majority.

The Syrian analyst said yesterday's violence in Lebanon also signalled the immense pressure on Syrian authorities. The government's use of force against protesters has brought growing international criticism, including from a former key ally, Turkey, which has accused Syria of "savagery".

Ankara has provided some $19 million (Dh69.7mn) in aid for the roughly 10,000 Syrian refugees who fled a military assault on the town of Jisr al Shougour. The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, has also increased his condemnation of Damascus. He bluntly called this week for President Bashar al Assad to "stop killing people".

Yesterday's worst violence was in the central city of Homs, Syria's third-largest urban area, where eight protesters were fatally shot by security forces, according to activists.

One protester was also shot and killed in Aleppo, they said, which until now has remained largely untouched by demonstrations, even as dissent has spread elsewhere across the country, despite mass arrests and the use of tank-backed military units.

If the protests and killing in Aleppo do signal the emergence of the uprising there, it would be a significant development. In other parts of the country, protesters yesterday called on Aleppo to join, chanting for it to "stand and shake the Republican palace".

In Damascus, protests have become the rule on Fridays rather than the exception. The most central areas of the capital have not seen large demonstrations, but they take place regularly in many districts, from the relatively affluent area of Midan to the working-class Hajar Aswad, a southern suburb.

"Protesting on Fridays is now part of our life. It's part of our routine," a 30 year-old dissident from Hajar Aswad said. "It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say we had 15,000 people out this time; young, old, men and women, we are growing in strength."

The activist said an understanding appeared to have emerged between protesters and the security forces sent to disperse them. He said this fragile, unspoken pact has prevented, at least so far, a repeat of April's violence when seven protesters were killed in the same suburb.

"The security watch us from a distance and they leave us (alone) as long as we do not try to leave Hajar," he said. "We march up and down, and shout 'The people want to topple the regime'. No one smashes anything, it's very peaceful."

Such a balance has not emerged in other places, with shootings in Deraa and Harasta, among others. In Qaborn, another

working-class Damascus neighbourhood, security forces fired on thousands of demonstrators and severely wounded several, according to activists.

Government media also said militants opened fire on security forces in various locations, including the eastern desert city of Deir Ezzor, attacking a police station, with at least one officer killed and more than 20 wounded.

Activists told a different story. They said two protesters had been killed. There were also claims that some soldiers were executed for refusing orders to fire at unarmed demonstrators.

Syrian authorities deny such schisms within the security forces but the number of desertions and acts of insubordination appear to be increasing.

Also in the eastern tribal region yesterday, thousands marched in the streets of Abu Kamal, on the Iraq-Syria border, despite tanks having been dispatched during the week to quell rebellion.

Activists claimed that hundreds of thousands of Syrians took part in yesterday's nationwide rallies. They said Hama held the biggest protest, possibly in response to a large pro-government demonstration held earlier this week in Damascus.

The government insists it is making political reforms but, at the same time, claims to be fighting an Islamic insurgency.

"The regime always says the protests do not involve millions of people," said one leading dissident. "If we had a real guarantee that no one would be killed or arrested for taking part in a demonstration, you would see the real numbers with the opposition, and they would be huge."