Deaths in Syria as protests reach Damascus ( Al-Jazeera English)
Reports of gunfire and deaths as thousands rally across country, including biggest gathering to date in Damascus.
Last Modified: 29 Apr 2011 10:13
Deaths are reported in Syria where the government has once again sent army units onto the streets of several cities, including Damascus, as protesters rally in solidarity with victims of a weeks-long crackdown.
Friday brought the largest anti-regime protest in the Syrian capital since protests against president Bashar al-Assad‘s decade-long rule began last month.
Gunfire was reported in Damascus and in the coastal city of Latakia, with witnesses claiming that security forces have fired on protesters, according to the Associated Press news agency.
Clashes are occurred in the southern city of Deraa where more than 100 protesters were killed a week ago. The AFP news agency says seven civilians have been killed while Syria’s state news agency says four security force members died when an “armed terrorist group” stormed an army checkpoint.
In Damascus, an estimated 15,000 protesters, many calling for the toppling of the regime, joined forces to march through the conservative Sunni neighbourhood of Midan, according to separate eyewitness accounts.
After the protesters had dispersed, a small pro-government demonstration took place with demonstrators carrying sticks and chanting: “With our soul and blood, we sacrifice to you Bashar.” (Click here for video)
Anti-government activists had called for protests following Friday prayers to commemorate the killings of over 100 protesters last Friday. The unrest is the greatest challenge to the country’s ruling Baath Party since it seized power in 1963.
Al Jazeera correspondent Rula Amin, reporting from Damascus, said Friday’s slogan is “solidarity for Deraa” – the southern city that has borne the brunt of a crackdown by Syrian security forces.
The call for mass demonstrations was made in a statement on the Facebook page of Syrian Revolution 2011 which has called for protests for greater freedom inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world.
“To the youths of the revolution, tomorrow we will be in all the places, in all the streets … We will gather at the besieged towns, including with our brothers in Deraa,” the statement said.
It said demonstrations would also be staged in other flashpoint towns such as Homs in the centre of the country and Baniyas in the northwest.
Meanwhile, an eyewitness in Deraa, speaking to Al Jazeera on Friday from close to the Omari Mosque that has been a focus for the uprising, described a scene of death and devastation.
He confirmed earlier testimony from a separate source of a split in the military forces sent by Assad to lay siege to the city.
The witness said he had collected the names of the dead from different neighbourhoods and counted 25 bodies in his own area.
“Some areas smell really bad due to the bodies rotting in the street. No one can collect them for fear of being shot,” he said, the sound of continuous gunfire audible over the phone. Those bodies which have been collected are being stored in refrigerated lorries, he said.
“Deraa is completely surrounded by tanks and armed troops. There are snipers on the roofs of government buildings and tall buildings. They are hiding behind water tanks and some are even hiding in the minarets of mosques.”
The source said some members of the Syrian army’s fifth division had defected and were attempting to protect civilians against attacks, but had come under fire themselves from soldiers in the fourth division, led by Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad.
“Those who have defected are fighting on behalf of the people, helping them with information on the army’s movements and trying to protect civilians from attacks,” he said.
The eyewitness said he had witnessed the defection on Thursday of some 20 soldiers of the fifth division who abandoned their unit and ran towards civilian houses. “I saw two soldiers gunned down and killed,” he said.
The witness’s comments came as Adnan Mahmud, the information minister, told the AFP news agency that the crackdown on protesters would continue, setting the scene for violent confrontations later Friday.
Our correspondent said: “There has been huge security presence: all entrances to the capital are manned by security forces.”
Muslim Brotherhood backs protests
Significantly, Friday’s demonstrations have the backing of the outlawed Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which was crushed by the regime in 1982.
It is the first time that the Brotherhood has called directly for protests in Syria since pro-democracy demonstrations against Assad erupted nearly six weeks ago.
A declaration by the Brotherhood, sent to Reuters news agency by its leadership in exile on Thursday, said: “Do not let the regime besiege your compatriots. Chant with one voice for freedom and dignity. Do not allow the tyrant to enslave you. God is great.”
So far, the Brotherhood has been trying to keep a low profile, as the government has been trying to link them to protests, Amin said.
The looming showdown comes as the UN Human Rights Council prepared for a special session on Syria in Geneva, and the European Union was meeting in Brussels to consider a wide range of sanctions against Assad’s regime.
The protests have drawn a cross section of Syrian society, which has been under Baath Party rule for the last 48 years.
The younger Assad kept intact the autocratic political system he inherited in 2000 from his father, Hafez al-Assad.
On Monday, Syrian army backed by tanks and armoured vehicle stormed Deraa resulting in further casualties.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attack on Deraa had killed at least 50 civilians, with essential supplies in the city running low.
Al Jazeera and agencies