Human rights protesters attacked by mob of pro-Assad students

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Violence erupted in Damascus yesterday when demonstrators calling for the lifting of Syria's 42-year-old emergency laws were attacked by hundreds of pro-government students and youth group members.

Violence erupted in Damascus yesterday when demonstrators calling for the lifting of Syria's 42-year-old emergency laws were attacked by hundreds of pro-government students and youth group members.

Ambulances were called to the scene after an initially calm demonstration by Syrian activists, including lawyers, writers and Kurds, was broken up by pro-government demonstrators, who chased activists from Damascus's main court to a city centre square. The violent clashes were a sharp contrast to the recent peaceful demonstrations for and against Bashar Assad's government in Lebanon.

The National Co-ordination Committee for Basic Freedom and Human Rights accused pro-government supporters of "repressive and uncivilised behaviour which threatens civil peace". Anwar Bunni, a Syrian lawyer, said several of his group were injured in the attack, including one activist who was beaten to the ground and another who was left with blood pouring from his mouth. Several journalists had their cameras and recording equipment snatched by Syrian military officials but it was later returned. Security officials did not prevent the activists being attacked.

"Today is a demonstration against terror," said one activist, before fleeing from the advancing crowd. Obeida Hamad, a Syrian journalist, said: "They are students. They are part of the people. They should not be doing this."

Several of those co-ordinating the pro-government crowd were identified by witnesses as leaders of the rally outside the parliament in Damascus during President Assad's speech on Saturday.

Taleb Kadi Amin, Syria's deputy information minister, said: "The human rights groups staged a sit-in and another group organised another demonstration against them. This is normal in any democratic state."

Mohammed Faisal, a youth group leader, said: "We are here under the leadership of President Bashar Assad and against 1559 [The UN resolution demanding Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon]. We must join all our people together."

The violence comes just a day after tens of thousands of Syrians rallied in the capital in support of President Assad's stance over Lebanon. One protester, Dalia Haider, said: "The first rally gave me a new feeling. People were there because they are Syrian and believe in their identity. It gave the impression that everything was changing. What happened today gives the opposite impression."

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