Syria protests spread, authorities pull back

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 21, 2011 12:22 PM

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Unrest spread in southern Syria on Monday with hundreds of people demonstrating against the government in the town of Jassem, activists said, but authorities did not use force to quell the latest protest.

Security forces killed four civilians in demonstrations that erupted last week in the town of Deraa, in the most serious challenge to President Bashar al-Assad's rule since the 45-year-old succeeded his father 11 years ago.

"This is peaceful, peaceful. God, Syria, freedom," chanted the protesters in Jassem, an agricultural town 30 km (20 miles) west of Deraa.

The authorities appeared to adopt less heavy-handed tactics, choosing not to intervene against protests demanding freedom and an end to corruption and repression, but not the overthrow of Assad. The ruling Baath Party has banned opposition and enforced emergency laws since 1963.

In Deraa, hundreds of black-uniformed security forces wielding AK-47 assault rifles lined the streets but did not confront thousands of mourners who marched at the funeral of 23-year-old Raed al-Kerad, a protester killed in Deraa.

"God, Syria, freedom. The people want the overthrow of corruption," they chanted.

The slogan is a play on the words "the people want the overthrow of the regime," the rallying cry of revolutions that overthrew the veteran rulers of Tunisia and Egypt and have spread across the Arab world.

The mourners later gathered at al-Omari mosque in the old quarter of Deraa. Troops set up checkpoints at the entrances of Deraa and were checking identity cards. Syrian Justice Minister Mohamad Ahmad Younis went to the city hall in an effort to calm emotions and open a dialogue with protesters.

Security forces opened fire last Friday on civilians taking part in a peaceful protest in Deraa to demand the release of 15 schoolchildren detained for writing protest graffiti, political freedoms and an end to corruption.

Authorities released the children on Monday in a sign they were hoping to defuse tension in the border town, which witnessed more protests after Friday's crackdown.

Local notables have also demanded the release of political prisoners, the dismantling of secret police headquarters in Deraa, the dismissal of the governor, a public trial for those responsible for the killings and the scrapping of regulations requiring secret police permission to sell and buy property.

Deraa's secret police is headed by a cousin of Assad, who has emerged in the last four years from isolation by the West over Syria's role in Lebanon and Iraq and backing for mostly Palestinian militant groups.

Assad has strengthened Syria's ties with Shi'ite Iran as he sought to improve relations with the United States and strike a peace deal with Israel to regain the occupied Golan Heights, lost in the 1967 Middle East war.

But he left the authoritarian system he inherited intact.

His father sent troops to the city of Hama in 1982 to crush the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, killing thousands in the conservative religious city.

France, which has been a strong proponent of rehabilitating Syria's ruling elite in the West, urged Damascus "to respond to the Syrian people aspirations with reforms.

"France calls on Syria to respect its international commitments on human rights, especially regarding freedom of opinion and speech," the French Foreign Ministry said.

(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi and Leigh Thomas in Paris; editing by Paul Taylor)