Demonstrators killed in Syrian crackdown

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Syrian forces opened fire yesterday on demonstrators, killing several as the opposition tried to rally ordinary Syrians in a day of mass protests across the country.

Activists had dubbed it “Martyrs’ Day,” calling on Syrians to march in their thousands after Friday prayers to demand greater political freedoms and honour the more than 70 people killed since protests erupted two weeks ago.

The rallying cry appeared to set the scene for a violent showdown with government forces after Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad vowed in a mid-week speech to crush protesters, whom he accused of being in the pay of foreign states.

There were reasonably large turnouts in at least three cities across Syria – including Deraa and Latakia, two flashpoints in pro-democracy protests – but the opposition has so far failed to muster the broad support that toppled authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. It also suggested that Mr Assad, who succeeded his hardline father as president 11 years ago, has bought himself some time by refusing to bow to protesters’ demands for political reform and flooding the streets with heavy security.

The worst of yesterday’s violence was in Douma, a town about nine miles north of the capital, Damascus, where up to four protesters were killed, eyewitnesses said. Worshippers coming out of the mosque started throwing stones at a security forces, drawing beatings, tear gas and finally live fire in response.

There were also reports of several deaths of protesters in the southern village of Sanamen, but the reports could not be verified.

In nearby Deraa, the town where the protests started after schoolchildren scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall, large crowds turned out, chanting slogans. But just a few miles away in the Jordanian border town of al-Ramtha, a driver said that the authorities had bussed a massive security force into Deraa the previous night, possibly deterring greater numbers from joining the protesters.

“There are many soldiers inside Deraa. They are just standing there and monitoring the situation,” said the driver, who had just crossed the border from Deraa, which has been largely locked down. “People there are scared. They think maybe they [the security forces] will put you in jail. Nobody can talk there.”

In Damascus, regime loyalists reportedly started beating protesters as they marched outside the al-Rifai mosque, while plain-clothed security personnel blended with those praying in the historic Ummayad mosque, the scene of clashes last week. For the first time, unrest also spread to the Kurdish areas in the northeast of Syria, a significant development given that protests there have been brutally suppressed in the past.

Mr Assad stunned his critics this week when he failed to provide any opening for reform in a much-anticipated speech, where instead he called protesters “conspirators,” blaming the unrest on a foreign plot.

The Facebook page Syrian Revolution 2011, one of the main motors of the protests, immediately slammed it as a missed opportunity. “What we have understood from the speech is that we have no choice but to remove the regime,” the group said in a statement on Thursday.

A day later, Mr Assad appeared to make some concessions, tasking committees to investigate the deaths of the protesters and troops, and study alternatives to the detested emergency law, which has been in place for decades and effectively allows the state to snuff out any opposition.

But opposition figures were dismissive, noting that the Syrian leader has failed to deliver on promised reform in the past, and predicting that the emergency law would merely be replaced with something equally draconian.