Friday marked the start of the fourth week of demonstrations in Syria as protesters continued to defy President Basher al-Assad’s security crackdown, demanded the repeal of the 48-year-old emergency law and called for Assad to step down.
Gunfire broke out following Friday prayers in the southern city of Dara’a, but there are conflicting reports about who was firing on whom, as well as the number of dead. Estimates range from 17 to more than 23 deaths following the violence. Witnesses told CNN that security forces fired on unarmed protesters. The Syrian government, however, claimed it was the protesters who fired on the security forces.
From the New York Times:
Wissam Tarif, director of a Syrian human rights group, said a doctor and medical student in Dara’a told him that 18 protesters had been killed in the clashes. Nine were shot in the head, he said. A Facebook group monitored by human rights activists in Syria said 24 had been killed in Dara’a and another 20 wounded.
Syrian state media said it was 19 security officers who had been killed and blamed gunmen who “opened fire on a group of citizens, security forces and police as worshippers left Friday prayer.” But video footage reportedly from Dara’a showed several dead and wounded men, none in uniforms.
The clash began as security forces on the bridge tried to keep two groups of protesters from joining together, the resident said. Chants of “Peaceful, peaceful!” rose through clouds of tear gas and the sounds of gunfire.
Tarif also said security forces were arresting protesters. CNN reports witness said security forces kept doctors from getting to the city’s main hospital to tend to the wounded.
The Syrian protests started in March and have centered on Dara’a, but are now spreading to other regions of the country. The BBC said:
The protests have posed an unprecedented challenge to President Bashar al-Assad’s 11-year rule. He has offered to consider reforms, but activists say his proposals do not go far enough.
Reports say the unrest Friday moved to areas closer to the center of the capital, Damascus, where security forces have maintained a strong presence.
A witness told the Guardian by phone:
4,000 people had gathered in Harasta, which has not seen demonstrations on previous Fridays. They carried olive branches and chanted “freedom.” “It was peaceful until security forces attacked and some shots were fired,” said the man, who asked for anonymity. “I saw six people shot, three of them with two bullets each.”
Amnesty International estimates at least 171 people have been killed to date.
“The alarming reports coming from Syria today show that the authorities have not altered their violent methods for dealing with dissent,” said Philip Luther, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Amnesty International told CNN.
“The Syrian government needs to take urgent action to rein in its security forces and prevent the loss of further lives,” he said.
Ever since Egyptian protesters took to Cairo’s Tahrir Square on January 25 in an uprising that led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, revolution has swept the Middle East and North Africa, Friday has become a pivotal day for protests as worshippers emerge from mosques following weekly noon prayers that mark the Muslim holy day.
In Egypt, too, revolution returned Friday as tens of thousands of protesters converged on Tahrir Square to voice their frustration over the slow pace of reforms. The protesters also called for the Egyptian military council to bring Mubarak to trial.
And in Yemen, rival demonstrations over the fate of President Ali Abdullah Saleh brought more than 100,000 people to the capital, Sanaa on Friday.
As the New York Times reported:
In the capital, chants in favor of Mr. Saleh echoed through the streets along with those calling for his ouster. The cadence of each was the same, though the words reflected the deep political impasse that has gripped the country since protests began in mid-February.
“The people want Ali Abdullah Saleh,” yelled some.
“The people want to the regime to fall,” yelled others nearby.
Adding to the heightened tension in the capital, a fleet of additional tanks has been deployed in the city, protecting the presidential palace in the past week.
The government said in a statement on Friday that Mr. Saleh welcomed an offer from the Gulf Cooperation Council, a six-nation regional coalition, to discuss a plan to transfer political power.
These 2 videos show protesters Friday in Syria:
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Photo: Map of Syria courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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