Deaths reported in Friday protests in Syria

At least 20 people have reportedly been killed in Syria, as mass protests are being held across the country.

Deaths were reported in the central city of Homs, Douma and the southern city of Azraa.

Security forces fired tear gas to disperse protesters in Damascus calling for the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, according to reports received by Al Jazeera.

Thousands of people have taken to the streets for rallies on what activists have dubbed “Great Friday“, in what they say could become the biggest protests against the government to date.

Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin reported from Damascus, which until now has been relatively calm, that the level of tension in the city on Friday marked a new point in the uprising.

“It wasn’t a big protest, and it was dispersed very quickly, but the security presence was very heavy,” she said.

“The level of violence has really escalated,”

she said, referring to widespread use of live bullets and tear gas by security forces across the country.

From Beirut, Robert Fisk, a leading correspondant with decades of experience in the region, told Al Jazeera that Assad appeared to be “stepping backwards”.

“Once you start giving these concessions, the crowds on the streets want more and it’ll always end at the same demand: end of the dictator,” Fisk said.

With his belated concessions, Assad is “is now enduring the failures that he committed 11 years ago,” Fisk said.

While crowds in Damascus and Deraa are getting bigger, Fisk says Basher won’t be fleeing Syria yet.

“He’s in a lot of trouble and there must be a lot of talk in the Presidential Palace tonight,” he said.

A witness in Syria’s third largest city of Homs told Al Jazeera that one of those killed by government officers was a 25-year-old protester named Mohammed Bassam al-Kahil.

Speaking under condition of anonymity, the activist described how about 200 protesters, moving ahead of a 3,000-strong group, came under fire as they marched down Cairo Street, close to the Clock Square that has been a focus for protests in Homs.

“Suddenly the security opened fire on us randomly,” the man said.

A witness told Al Jazeera that demonstrators gathering at a mosque after prayers in Hasakah in the mainly Kurdish northeast were attacked by pro-government protesters.

A government spokesperson told Al Jazeera on Friday that security forces would only fire upon protesters if they were fired upon first.

Reforms ‘not enough’

Syrian activists co-ordinating mass protests against al-Assad’s rule have demanded the abolition of Baath Party monopoly on power and the establishment of a democratic political system.

In the first joint statement since protests erupted five weeks ago, the Local Co-ordination Committees, representing provinces across Syria, said

“freedom and dignity slogans cannot be achieved except through peaceful democratic change”.

“All prisoners of conscience must be freed. The existing security apparatus has to be dismantled and replaced by one with specific jurisdiction and which operates according to law,” said the joint statement.
On the eve of the protests, witnesses said security forces were setting up checkpoints in areas surrounding Damascus, checking people’s ID cards.
The demonstrations are a test of whether Assad’s decision to lift emergency law, imposed by his Baath Party when it took power in a coup 48 years ago, will defuse mass discontent with repression and corruption.

Haitham Maleh, president of the Syrian Human Rights Association, told Al Jazeera that the regime’s reforms only went a fraction of the way towards satisfying the protesters’ demands for more freedom, democracy and the legalization of opposition parties.

“The government will not do anything, I think, and the strikes will get bigger and bigger,” he said.

Yet Amin said that because one of the conditions for the newly-gained right to protest was to request a permit, today’s protests fell outside of the changes.

“There was no time for anyone to ask for permission for today,” she said.

Aided by his family and a pervasive security apparatus, Assad, 45, has absolute power in Syria.

More than 220 protesters have been killed since pro-democracy protests erupted on March 18 in the southern city of Daraa, rights campaigners say.

A decree Assad signed on Thursday that lifted emergency law is seen by the opposition as little more than symbolic, since other laws still give entrenched security forces wide powers.

Human Right Watch said Assad “has the opportunity to prove his intentions by allowing [Friday’s] protests to proceed without violent repression.

“The reforms will only be meaningful if Syria’s security services stop shooting, detaining, and torturing protesters,” Joe Stork, the group’s deputy Middle East director, said.

The authorities have blamed armed groups, infiltrators and Sunni Muslim armed groups for provoking violence at demonstrations by firing on civilians and security forces.

Western and other Arab countries have mostly muted their criticism of the killings in Syria for fear of destabilising the country, which plays a strategic role in many of the conflicts in the Middle East.

Syria is technically at war with Israel but has kept its Golan Heights front quiet since a 1974 ceasefire.

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