x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Thousands rally in cities across Syria

In contrast to last Friday when some 30 protesters were killed there, security forces yesterday were pulled back from Deraa, allowing demonstrators to hold a peaceful protest.

DAMASCUS // Thousands of Syrians took to the streets again yesterday to call for political reforms, defying emergency laws banning public gatherings of more than five people.

In Deraa, the southern city at the heart of an unprecedented uprising that has spread across much of Syria, as many as 10,000 people gathered to demand freedom, according to civil rights activists.

In contrast to last Friday when some 30 protesters were killed there, security forces yesterday were pulled back from the city, allowing demonstrators to hold a peaceful protest.

A similar scene was repeated in the port city of Banias, which throughout the week has been the site of fatal shootings targeting civilians and security units.

Hundreds of protesters marched peacefully there, according to witnesses, a day after community leaders struck a deal with the government to pull secret police units out, and deploy the army instead to ensure security.

By yesterday evening, no fatal clashes between security forces and demonstrators had been reported.

In Douma, a suburb of Damascus where at least 11 civilians have been killed this month, police used tear gas against marching crowds, according to civil rights monitors.

Nonetheless, it appeared that the bloodshed of the previous Friday - when 37 people were killed in the worst violence since protests began more than a month ago - had been avoided.

"The protests have expanded and no one has been shot," said a Syrian supporter of the demonstrations.

"The street is keeping up the pressure on the authorities. It's a very good day."

Negotiations between senior government officials and representatives from Deraa, Banias and Douma last week appeared to have helped to prevent a worsening cycle of violence.

Activists in Syria's Kurdish dominated north-east stepped up their involvement in the protests, with videos posted online of a rally in Qamishli.

There was also a protest in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, the centre of a largely tribal area on the Euphrates River, according to activists.

Demonstrations were also staged in the heart of the capital at Abbasside Square and in a number of Damascus suburbs, including Barzeh, and in Kisweh, which is 26 kilometres south of the capital, activists said.

Further protests were staged in Latakia, Hama, Homs and Aleppo, according to activists.

For the first time, state television acknowledged small public rallies in Deraa and Deir Ezzor, broadcasting footage of marches, something it has previously refused to air. It denied, however, that demonstrations had taken place in Deraa.

Friday protests, once unthinkable in the tightly controlled nation, have now become weekly fixtures, along with last-minute announcements made by the government each Thursday in an effort to defuse demonstrations.

In the latest move to quell the unrest, the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad reshuffled his government, and ordered the release of prisoners detained during recent protest, provided they had not been involved in violence.

That step was welcomed by civil rights activists, but they said it did not go far enough, with thousands of long-standing political prisoners still being held in Syria's jails.

The list of new cabinet ministers did little to mollify protesters, with no known reformers or independent figures among the names.

The cabinet has little authority in Syria, with real power held by the president, his closest advisers and extended family.

"He [president Assad] and his advisers are still circling around the problem, they have not yet reached the heart of the matter," said the protest supporter.

"We hope they do reach the heart. The emergency law must go, political parties must be allowed to work and political prisoners should be released.

"The security services also need to stop abusing the people."

An end to decades of martial law has been one of the demonstrators' central demands.

Emergency legislation, enforced since 1963, has been widely used since then to suppress any opposition to the ruling elite.