Syria: security forces open fire on 20,000 strong sit-in


Syrian security forces opened fire on a sit-in of 20,000 anti-government demonstrators in the central city of Homs overnight, sending thousands of protesters scattering.

“The sit-in was dispersed with force. There was heavy gunfire,” one activist. There were no details of casualties.

Other Syrian activists living in exile confirmed the reports but said they had not been able to get further details due to telephone communications being cut in Homs.

Activists had said more than 20,000 demonstrators on Monday occupied the main square of Homs, some erecting tents, a day after 11 people were killed by security forces in the industrial city and a nearby town during a day of massive nationwide protest.

Inspired by popular uprisings which toppled hardline rulers in Tunisia and Egypt, the protesters had vowed not to leave Al-Saa Square in the centre of Homs until the regime of President Bashar al-Assad fell.

They dismissed as insufficient a weekend pledge by Assad that he would lift nearly five decades of draconian emergency law and demanded the release of all political prisoners and an end to arbitrary arrests.

The interior ministry issued a warning late Monday that it would suppress an “armed revolt” undermining security in the country.

“The latest incidents have shown that… armed Salafist groups, particularly in the cities of Homs and Banias, have openly called for armed revolt,” said a ministry statement carried by the official SANA news agency.

It accused such groups of killing soldiers, policemen and civilians, and of attacking public and private property, and warned that “their terrorist activities will not be tolerated.”

The government blamed the weeks of anti-government unrest in the country on ultraconservative Muslims seeking to establish a fundamentalist state and terrorize the people, in the latest official effort to portray the reform movement as populated by extremists.

The Egypt-style standoff followed funeral processions by more than 10,000 mourners for some of those killed in clashes Sunday that a rights group said left at least 12 people dead.

In the past month, Syrian security forces in uniforms and plainclothes have launched a deadly crackdown on demonstrations, killing at least 200 people, according to human rights groups.

On Monday, the Interior Ministry identified the gangs as “armed Salafi groups,” referring to an ultraconservative form of Islam that has its roots in Saudi Arabia and can be found all over the region.

The statement carried by the state news agency said they were seeking to establish “emirates” and were “abusing the freedoms and reforms launched in the comprehensive program with a timetable by President Bashar Assad.”

The latest protests are likely to increase pressure on Assad, who has tried to quell the popular uprising with a mixture of brute force and concessions. On Saturday, he promised to end nearly 50 years of emergency rule this week, a key demand of the protesters.

Syria’s widely despised emergency laws have been in place since the ruling Baath Party came to power in 1963, giving the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge and extending state authority into virtually every aspect of life.

But he warned there will no longer be “an excuse” for organizing protests once Syria lifts emergency rule and implements reforms, which he said will include a new law allowing the formation of political parties.

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