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
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA powerful collection of reportage on Egypt’s cycle of awakening and relapse
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Mechanical Design Engineer

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A key client in the East Midlands are re...

Year 5/6 Teacher

£21000 - £31000 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The JobWe are looking ...

Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The Job...Due to continued ...

Supply Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Supply TeachersWould you l...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice