x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Students killed in Syrian raid on Aleppo University protests

Security forces storm student protest at dormitories, firing tear gas and live ammunition and beating activists.

The head of the United Nations observation team, Col Ahmed Himmiche, right, speaks with the Free Syrian Army commander Abu Kutaiba in the old city of Homs yesterday. Regime forces reportedly killed students at university in Aleppo yesterday, casting new doubt on the UN peace plan.
The head of the United Nations observation team, Col Ahmed Himmiche, right, speaks with the Free Syrian Army commander Abu Kutaiba in the old city of Homs yesterday. Regime forces reportedly killed students at university in Aleppo yesterday, casting new doubt on the UN peace plan.

BEIRUT // Syrian security forces stormed dormitories at a north-western university to break up anti-government protests there, killing at least four students and wounding several others with tear gas and live ammunition, activists and opposition groups said yesterday.

About 1,500 students had been protesting in student quarters next to Aleppo University's main campus late Wednesday when security forces and pro-regime gunmen swept into their residences, firing tear gas at first, then live ammunition to disperse them.

The United States condemned the raid and said a new international approach may be needed if a UN-backed peace plan fails, accusing President Bashar Al Assad of making "no effort" to implement it so far.

"If the regime's intransigence continues, the international community is going to have to admit defeat and work to address the serious threat to peace and stability being perpetrated by the Assad regime," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. The raid followed an attack on the protesters by pro-regime students armed with knives, activists said.

Student activist Thaer Al Ahmed said panic and chaos ensued as students tried to flee.

"Some students ran to their rooms to take cover but they were followed to their rooms, beaten up and arrested," he said. "Others suffered cuts and broken bones as they tried to flee."

Raids and intermittent gunfire continued for about five hours through early yesterday, he said, adding that dozens of people were wounded, some critically, and about 50 students were arrested.

Aleppo, Syria's largest city and economic hub, has a population that has remained largely loyal to President Bashar Al Assad and has been largely spared from the violence that has plagued other Syrian cities.

But university students - many from rebellious areas such as Idlib province - have been staging almost daily protests calling for the fall of Mr Al Assad's regime. Mr Al Thaer, a law student, said the campus and dormitories have been raided before, but yesterday's raid was the most violent.

The student quarters - known as the University City - comprise 20 dormitories that house more than 5,000 students next to the university campus. Students there often shouted out anti-Assad slogans from their rooms at night, Mr Al Thaer said.

An amateur video showed a large number of security forces apparently storming the dorms Wednesday night. Another showed a students protest earlier Wednesday, during which protesters shouted: "We don't want you, Bashar!"

The authenticity of the videos could not be confirmed.

The Local Coordination Committees activist group said five students were killed and some 200 arrested in the raids, while the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at four. The Syrian government has prevented independent reporting in the country, making it impossible to independently verify casualty figures.

"Regime forces demanded through loudspeakers that the dorms be evacuated, then began detaining the students," the LCC said in a statement.

The Observatory's director Rami Abdul-Rahman said pro-regime students armed with knives tried to break up the protest before the security forces raided the dorms.

Syria's persistent bloodshed has tarnished efforts by a UN team of observers to salvage a truce brokered by UN special envoy Kofi Annan that started to unravel almost as soon as it was supposed to begin on April 12.

The two sides have blamed each other for thwarting the truce, with Mr Al Assad's forces trying to repress demonstrators calling for him to step down and an armed rebellion that has sprung up as peaceful protests have proved ineffective against his forces. The UN says 9,000 people have died since the uprising began in March 2011.

Despite the violence, the international community still sees the peace plan as the last chance to prevent Syria from falling into civil war - in part because no country wants to intervene militarily.

The head of the UN observers, Norwegian Maj Gen Robert Mood, visited the cities of Homs and Hama, where anti-regime sentiment runs high, yesterday.

He said there is still "a good chance and an opportunity" to break the cycle of violence.

Reporters accompanying the observers yesterday on the government-guided tour interviewed residents who said life was fairly normal during the day but was worrisome at night.

"The situation is calm during the day but scary at night," said Maher Jerjous, a 53-year-old resident of the Bab Al Quba district in Hama. "Masked gunmen ... roam the streets. There are kidnappings on public roads. You will not see anyone [on the streets] after six."

* Associated Press with additional reporting by Reuters