As tanks line the streets, Syrians stand firm to defy brutal regime

Crowds gather across nation despite bloody crackdown that has left hundreds dead
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The Independent Online

Thousands of protesters faced the guns of the Syrian regime yesterday undeterred by a ferocious crackdown and a campaign of intimidation that has failed to quell popular discontent against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

Click HERE to upload graphic: Flashpoints and the security crackdown (200.92kb jpg)

Security forces opened fire on marches in several cities killing at least 21 protesters, according to rights activists, continuing the brutal crackdown that has left more than 550 people dead since widespread civil unrest began in March.

The Syrian regime has arrested up to 500 people a day in a new drive to crackdown on the protest movement, according to diplomatic sources, with more than 7,000 being held in a network of secret prisons. The upsurge in detentions, taking place across the country, has been going on for the last week and is seen as an attempt to prevent the organising or co-ordinating of demonstrations.

Tanks ringed the southern city of Deraa yesterday, where the protests began and has been the scene of a major military offensive by the regime to try to prevent any major shows of defiance. The city has been the scene of a wave of arrests with local residents claiming that virtually all males over the age of 15 had been taken away in raids by security forces.

Despite the crackdown, protests were held in dozens of cities and towns across the country, with many of the protests broken up by regime forces. Video downloaded to YouTube purported to show a demonstration in Hama with protesters running down a main street and hurling stones. Loud screams could be heard as the sound of machine-gun fire started and people fled for cover.

A second video, supposedly from the central city of Homs and filmed from behind a curtain inside a home, showed two army snipers on a rooftop taking aim at unseen targets below. Neither of the videos could be verified.

"We were chanting, peaceful, peaceful, and we didn't even throw a stone at the security forces," a witness told The Associated Press and claimed that there were 10,000 people on the streets in the city. "But they waited for us to reach the main square and then they opened fire on us."

Security forces yesterday targeted leaders of the opposition. They dragged off Riad Seif, a prominent figure from a rally in the Midan district of Damascus. Mr Seif, 64, and suffering from cancer, has spent a total of eight years on charges of "weakening national morale" for demanding democratic reforms and freedom of expression in his homeland, and came out of jail following his latest sentence last year. His daughter, Jumana Seif, said "My father was shoved into a bus with other protestors who were detained during the demonstration near the al-Hassan mosque."

Elsewhere in Damascus there were reports of shootings in two eastern suburbs while demonstrators also reportedly took to the streets in Moadamiyah and Daraya – two towns close to the capital which have seen brutal army crackdowns in recent weeks. Security forces cordoned off Douma, to the east of Damascus, and allowed nobody to enter or leave. Another witness said that he had seen tanks being transported by train to Homs, while in the north-western city of Baniyas thousands of people, many carrying olive branches and Syrian flags, chanted for the fall of the regime.

"The protests have spread more than any we have seen in the past seven weeks," said Wissam Tarif, executive director of Middle East human rights organisation Insan. "We had counted uprisings in 108 towns and villages across the country. We have seen intimidation. There have been snipers, and a strategy of building a wall of fear. A lot of people are scared, so it's amazing that people are coming out."

A spokesman for the National Initiative for Change, an umbrella group for opposition figures inside Syria, claimed that yesterday's protests indicate that the pro-reform movement was becoming too big for the government to cope with. The protests have escalated steadily since they were triggered by the arrests of 15 schoolchildren for spraying anti-regime graffiti in Deraa.

Thousands march in Yemen

AP

*Yemenis seeking their President's resignation found a new way to get their message across yesterday, releasing balloons that drifted over the presidential palace with the message "Leave, Ali" painted on them.

The tens of thousands of protesters, right, showed their strength in the capital Sanaa, while at the presidential palace a much smaller rally of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's supporters listened to the embattled leader deliver a message of his own, denouncing his opponents as terrorists, looters and killers.

President Saleh has refused to end his 32 years in power despite tremendous pressure from three months of street demonstrations.

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