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Troops open fire as Syrians vent anger

By Patrick Cockburn

Syrian troops opened fire on demonstrators yesterday as protests swept the country on an unprecedented scale, with tens of thousands challenging the rule of the Assad family.

In the southern city of Deraa, where the protest movement started a week ago, troops shot at demonstrators who set fire to a statue of the late President Hafez al-Assad, whose son Bashar has ruled Syria since 2000. Demonstrators first demanded reform of the regime, but increasingly call for a revolution.

In the town of Sanamein, near Deraa, security forces are reported to have killed 20 people after Friday prayers yesterday as they protested against the regime and killings by the security services.

In Hama, north of the capital, Damascus, people ran through the streets shouting “freedom is ringing out!” — a slogan used in popular uprisings in the Arab world over the past three months.

Police with batons reacted harshly and swiftly in breaking up small demonstrations in Damascus. Dozens of people who chanted slogans in support of the people of Deraa were dragged away by police.

In Tel, near Damascus, hundreds rallied, calling the Assad family “thieves”, and there were rallies in most other Syrian cities.

The focus of the uprising switched to Syria after police arrested a dozen children in Deraa for writing anti-government graffiti on a wall.

Security services have tried to crush the protesters by force, killing 37 of them in a mosque on Wednesday. State television made the unlikely claim that the mosque was the headquarters of a kidnap gang and showed machine-guns leaning against a wall and a table with bundles of bank notes on it.

The protests are the biggest domestic challenge to the Assad family since the early 1980s, when President Hafez al-Assad crushed a Sunni revolt centred on Hama where some 10,000 people were reputedly killed in 1982.

The government had initially showed restraint during the funerals of those killed by the security forces in Deraa, but later there was the sound of gunfire and journalists were escorted out of the city.

Witnesses said that 50,000 people had rallied in Assad Square in Deraa chanting “Freedom! Freedom!” as they waved Syrian flags.

Bashar al-Assad has offered concessions to the protesters, such as ending the state of emergency that has existed since 1963, greater freedom of speech and promising a pay rise to public employees.

Previously he had expressed confidence the protests would not spread to Syria from Tunisia and Egypt, believing his family's nationalist credentials and confrontations with Israel and the US would immunise it from unrest.

The Baath party has held power in Syria since 1963. The government said that all those arrested in Deraa since the start of the protests had been released.

Meanwhile, in Jordan, a bystander was killed when security forces used batons to disperse a clash between pro-monarchy demonstrators and protesters calling for political reform.

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