Thousands mourn dead as Syrian premier appointed

AP News
Posted: Apr 03, 2011 1:26 PM
Thousands mourn dead as Syrian premier appointed

Thousands of Syrians marched through a Damascus suburb Sunday in funerals for those killed in new protests, as the president appointed a former agriculture minister to form a new government as part of limited gestures to those calling for sweeping political change.

Human rights groups and activists say at least 10 people were killed during protests Friday in Douma, just outside the Syrian capital, and in nearby areas.

On Sunday, a witness told The Associated Press thousands of people gathered for prayers before the funeral of eight of the victims at Douma's Grand Mosque, which was at the center of Friday's protests.

The crowds shouted "We want Freedom" and "Douma and Daraa, one hand," in a reference to a drought-stricken and impoverished city in the south from where Syria's protests began on March 18.

"It looks like all of Douma is out on the streets today," said the witness, speaking by telephone on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

He said the two other people killed in areas near Douma were also buried Sunday. All the coffins were draped with Syrian flags, he added.

The witness said there was no sign of security forces in Douma Sunday, adding that mourning tents for receiving condolences were set up in the city later.

The violence in Douma Friday was some of the worst seen in two weeks of bloody protests in Syria, during which at least 80 people have died, according to rights groups.

Activists said protesters had come under attack by security forces as they left the Grand Mosque chanting slogans for freedom. The troops hit people with clubs and threw stones before firing tear gas and finally live ammunition.

Authorities blamed Friday's bloodshed on "armed gangs" and President Bashar Assad has described the unrest as a foreign-influenced conspiracy against Syria.

Assad, facing the biggest challenge yet to his 11-year rule, has made a series of overtures that protesters say do not satisfy their demands for real change.

The president sacked his government last week in answer to growing cries for reform in Syria, one of the most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. On Thursday, he set up committees to look into the deaths of civilians during two weeks of unrest and replacing decades-old state-of-emergency laws.

On Sunday, he appointed former Agriculture Minister Adel Safar to form a new government. Safar is seen as a respectable figure in a government that many had accused of corruption.

The 58-year-old Safar holds a doctorate in agricultural sciences from a French polytechnic center and was the dean of Damascus University's agricultural faculty from 1997-2000. He also heads the Arab Center for Dry and Arid Areas.

The extraordinary wave of protests has proved the most serious challenge yet to the Assad family's 40-year dynasty.

The protests were touched off by the arrest of several teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti on walls in Daraa.

Human rights groups and witnesses said a campaign of arrests was continuing Sunday as Assad tries to cut off the demonstrations. Ammar Qurabi, who heads Syria's National Organization for Human Rights, said at least 500 people have been arrested since protests began.

A Syrian official confirmed a wave of arrests Sunday, saying authorities had arrested the majority of "troublemakers" in Daraa and restored calm to the city after two weeks of unrest.

The official told the AP that Daraa residents "contributed" in arresting those who had endangered people's lives. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements.

Khaled al-Abboud, a Syrian lawmaker for the area of Daraa, blamed the unrest on takfiri Islamists, referring to an ideology that urges Sunni Muslims to kill anyone they consider an infidel.

He said some Daraa residents took to the streets with a genuine set of demands, but were "mobilized in a certain direction" by a Muslim extremists group.

"They were exploited in one way or another," he said.

Also on Sunday, lawyer and human rights activist Khalil Maatouk said authorities released Suheir Atassi, a longtime Syrian pro-democracy activist. Atassi was among 32 people who were detained March 16 after taking part in a protest in front of the Syrian Interior Ministry calling for the release of political prisoners.

Maatouk said three people among the group were still in detention.