At defiant march, Syrians shout 'No more fear!'

AP News
|
Posted: Mar 21, 2011 7:24 PM
At defiant march, Syrians shout 'No more fear!'

Syrians chanting "No more fear!" held a defiant march Monday after a deadly government crackdown failed to quash three days of mass protests in a southern city _ an extraordinary outpouring in a country that is known for brutally suppressing dissent.

Riot police armed with clubs chased the small group away without casualties, but traces of earlier, larger demonstrations were everywhere: burned-out and looted government buildings, a dozen torched vehicles, an office of the ruling Baath party with its windows knocked out. Protesters also burned an office of the telecommunications company Syriatel, which is owned in part by the president's cousin.

The unrest in the city of Daraa started Friday after security troops fired at protesters, killing five people. Over the next two days, two more people died and authorities sealed the city, allowing people out but not in, as thousands of enraged protesters set fire to government buildings and demonstrated around the city.

Among the victims was 11-year-old Mundhir Masalmi, who died Monday after suffering tear gas inhalation a day earlier, an activist told The Associated Press. The activist asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisals.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor complained Monday that reports indicate the Syrian government "has used disproportionate force against civilians, and in particular against demonstrators and mourners in Daraa."

Human Rights Watch said in a statement that Syria should "cease use of live fire and other excessive force against protesters." On Monday, an Associated Press team was allowed into Daraa, accompanied by two government minders who kept them away from protesters and would not allow photographs of demonstrations. Army checkpoints circled the city and plainclothes officers were deployed in key areas.

The military tightened security around the old part of the city that witnessed much of the violence. Soldiers were stopping cars trying to go to the old part, checking identity cards and searching vehicles to make sure no one was carrying weapons. The minders prevented the AP team from going to the old quarter.

Lawyer Samir Kafri told the AP that criminal records were destroyed as people ransacked and burned the two-story Palace of Justice, which houses a criminal court and a police station. Every room in the building was burned, and more than 20 computers were stolen, he said.

About a dozen lawyers who gathered outside the building said the attack on the courthouse appeared to be well organized, as the attackers managed to destroy all files related to crimes such as drugs and arms dealings.

Among the buildings set on fire were the offices of the anti-drug department, about 200 yards (meters) from the court.

Municipal workers hosed down charred courtrooms covered in soot and ash, and security officers hung Syrian flags outside broken, scorched windows.

At the entrance of the city, the bottom of a giant picture of President Bashar Assad was torn.

The violence in Daraa has fast become a major challenge for Assad, who has tried to contain the situation by freeing detainees and promising to fire officials responsible for the violence.

Many residents who spoke to the AP blamed what they called troublemakers who took advantage of the protests to loot and set state buildings on fire.

But a man approached a reporter in the city center and said "all the troubles in the city are because of the corrupt governor."

One human rights activist said pro-democracy demonstrations spread Monday to the towns of Jasim and Inkhil, near Daraa, where thousands of people demonstrated to demand reforms.

Syria, a predominantly Sunni country ruled by minority Alawites, has a history of suppressing dissent. Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez, crushed a Muslim fundamentalist uprising in the city of Hama 1982, killing thousands.

Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, said he does not see that what is happening in Syria is similar to those of Arab states, because Syria has a history in which riots don't spread to other cities. "In 1982, clashes were in Hama and did not spread," he said.

Khashan said unlike Daraa, where thousands have protested, only few hundreds marched in other cities.

A city of about 300,000 near the border with Jordan, Daraa has been relatively peaceful up to now, although it is suffering sustained economic effects from a years-long drought.

Khashan said protests are happening in Daraa because the province is far from Damascus, and this might have made people think that "change is possible."

Prolonged disturbances in Syria would be a major expansion of the unrest tearing through the Arab world for more than a month after pro-democracy uprisings that overthrew the autocratic leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.

But protesters in Syria would face a tough time trying to pull off a serious uprising along those lines. A few earlier attempts to organize protests through social networking sites fell flat.

Despite political repression and rights abuses, Assad remains popular among many in the Arab world, in particular because he is seen as one of the few Arab leaders willing to stand up to Israel.