Syria defies Assad with largest protests so far

Regime looks increasingly embattled as security forces open fire on crowds of hundreds of thousands. Khalid Ali reports

The Syrian regime was looking increasingly isolated yesterday as hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in some of the largest rallies of the uprising, despite an unprecedented attempt by President Bashar al-Assad to reach out to his political opponents.

Click HERE to upload graphic: Arab Spring Survival Guide: How many regimes have defied unrest so far (310.28kB)

Marchers massed in city squares up and down the country, facing the bullets of Mr Assad's security forces, with at least nine people reported killed. A video posted on YouTube showed residents from a town in north-west Syria – a region which has been subject to a relentless army operation using tanks, troops and helicopter gunships – chanting "Bashar is a vampire" and holding anti-government placards.

Another film from Hama, north of Damascus, posted online by activists purports to show the city centre packed with tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators. An enormous flag is stretched out above the heads of protesters gathered in al-Assi Square, while crowds of cheering, banner-waving demonstrators are hemmed-in for as far as the eye can see.

President Assad, who earlier this week invited hundreds of opposition figures to Damascus for discussions on the future of the regime, again used his security forces to respond to the nationwide civil unrest with shootings and arrests. Human rights activists said the nine dead included three in the central city of Homs, where witnesses said soldiers fired on civilians from behind road blocks while armoured vehicles took up positions inside one of the city's old neighbourhoods.

Other activists told the Reuters news agency that injured civilians were being taken to hospitals on the outskirts of Homs to avoid the troops stationed at emergency wards in the city centre.

Ausama Monajed, a UK-based member of opposition umbrella group the National Initiative for Change, said: "The Syrian regime is still using the same old tactics. But it's very clear that the people are not afraid any more."

Human rights activists say more than 1,400 civilians have been killed since the uprising began in mid-March.

Yesterday's disturbances came after at least 19 people died during a two-day military operation in Syria's restive north-west. Troops and tanks continued their sweep through the area following an exodus of more than 10,000 refugees fleeing across the border into Turkey – a major source of embarrassment for the Baathist regime.

Advancing soldiers have shelled homes and slaughtered livestock as the Syrian government tries to wrest the province of Idlib back under its control. The operation began around three weeks ago after violence erupted in the north-western town of Jisr al-Shughour following police and army defections.

"They fear there will be sympathy for the people who are fleeing, and they are frightened that this will cause international pressure to mount on the regime," Mustafa Osso, a Syria-based human rights activist, told the Associated Press news agency.

Yesterday's violence came as the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, told a press conference during a Lithuania trip that the Baathist regime was "running out of time".

She said: "They are either going to allow a serious political process that will include peaceful protests to take place throughout Syria and engage in a productive dialogue with members of the opposition and civil society, or they're going to continue to see increasingly organised resistance."

The US and European Union have already imposed a series of sanctions on Mr Assad and his inner circle in response to the worsening violence in Syria. This week the US Treasury Department said it would also target Syria's security forces with further financial measures due to the government's brutal crackdown.

According to Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Ms Clinton's statement shows that the White House "isn't going to be satisfied with promises of cosmetic reform". "The opposition is organising faster than ever before. As it coalesces and a clear alternative takes shape, I expect the US position will become stronger," he said.

The nationwide protest movement has been gathering momentum ever since widespread unrest first erupted in the southern Syrian city of Deraa in mid-March. Shootings, arbitrary arrests and allegations of state-sponsored torture have failed to quell the insurrection. But, on Monday, the government appeared to change tack when it invited around 200 political opponents to a Damascus hotel for a discussion about the prospects of a negotiated solution.

A final communiqué from the meeting called for a "peaceful transition to a democratic, civil and pluralistic state", but many Syrian activists said delegates at the conference were being used as stool pigeons by a government playing for time. Radwan Ziadeh, a leading member of the Syrian opposition who is based in the US, said: "It wasn't clear who was behind this conference. Some of the people attending have no connection to the Syrian opposition at all."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
News
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
news
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn