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Assad's demo ploy sparks killings

Government supporters and opponents have clashed in at least two Syrian cities leaving three people dead as President Bashar Assad's regime tried to counter the pro-democracy uprising with mass demonstrations.

Two people were killed in the central city of Homs and one in the eastern city of Deir el Zour. The two sides have clashed in the past, but the latest violence appeared to be the worst.

Assad mobilised tens of thousands of people to wave flags and pictures of him in several major cities, a day after he offered a vague plan for political reform in a speech that was rejected by opposition supporters.

An eyewitness in Homs said a pro-Assad protest with 10,000 people "descended" on the city. "Nobody knows them, they are strangers to the city, they were asking for directions," he said.

Anti-government demonstrators then emerged in Homs neighbourhoods, gunfire broke out, and two people were killed and six wounded, he said.

Tens of thousands of Syrians took part in boisterous pro-regime demonstrations shouting, "The people want Bashar Assad!" and releasing black, white and red balloons - colours of the Syrian flag.

The largest gathering appeared to be in Damascus, but Syrian state TV showed similar demonstrations in the northern cities of Aleppo and Latakia, Hasaka in the north-east, and the southern city of Daraa.

Assad's speech - and the pro-regime display - showed the president clearly intends to try to ride out the wave of pro-democracy protests, showing the steely determination that has kept the Assad family in power for 40 years.

But the mobilised opposition appeared to be digging in as well, bracing for a showdown in one of the deadliest uprisings of the Arab Spring.

The opposition estimates more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed and 10,000 detained as Assad unleashed his military and security forces to crush the protest movement that erupted in March, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

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