Saturday, December 31, 2011

At Least 32 Dead as Hundreds of Thousands Flood Syria Streets

Syrian forces were accused of firing nail bombs Friday to disperse protesters as hundreds of thousands of people flooded streets across the country to make their voices heard to Arab monitors.

Protesters called for the ouster and prosecution of President Bashar al-Assad, whose autocratic regime has been blamed for the deaths of more than 5,000 people since pro-reform protests erupted in March.

Activists urged monitors, who started this week a mission to implement an Arab League peace plan, to protect civilians from the regime's wrath.

"We urge you to make a clear distinction between the assassin and the victim," activists of the Syrian Revolution 2011 said in a statement posted on their Facebook page.

"Our revolution which was launched nine months ago is peaceful," they said.

The death toll rose again Friday, with at least 32 civilians killed by gunfire as Syrian forces dispersed crowds of protesters around the country, while four people died in an ambush by government troops, activists and a rights watchdog said.

The Local Coordination Committees, the main activist group spurring protests on the ground, said nine people were killed in the flashpoint central province of Homs, nine in the restive central province of Hama, two in the countryside around Damascus, six in the northwestern province of Idlib, and six in the southern province of Daraa, cradle of the pro-democracy protests.

Huge demonstrations rocked northwestern Idlib province and Douma, a Damascus suburb where protesters clashed with security forces who fired "nail bombs" to disperse them, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

At least 24 protesters were hurt when security forces fired "nail bombs to disperse tens of thousands of demonstrators in Douma," the watchdog said, adding that the protesters "hurled stones" in retaliation.

"An activist in the city told the Observatory that he was hurt by shrapnel from those bombs," the Britain-based group said in a statement received by Agence France Presse.

In Douma, security forces also fired "stun grenades and tear gas" at protesters as 60,000-70,000 demonstrators headed to city hall, where Arab League observers visited the previous day.

It was the "biggest ever demonstration" in the restive suburb since March, it added.

Further north in Idlib province, which borders Turkey, more than 250,000 protesters took the streets in various locations, the Observatory reported.

Meanwhile, Anwar Omran, member of the so-called Revolution Council of Hama, told Al-Jazeera television that “Hama witnessed today massive demonstrations, with protesters numbering around 300,000.”

In the southern province of Daraa, cradle of the pro-democracy protests, five civilians were shot dead when security forces opened fire on crowds of protesters, the Observatory said.

Several people were shot and wounded in the Daraa town of Inkhil where, bracing for protests, authorities deployed security forces and posted snipers on high grounds from early in the morning, it said.

Protests also took place in Homs, which activists have dubbed the "martyr" city as hundreds have died there in a government crackdown on dissent over the past few months.

In the Damascus neighborhood of al-Qadam, security forces fired live rounds of ammunition at worshippers who emerged from midday prayers apparently to prevent them from joining the protests, said the Observatory.

Protests in Aleppo, Syria's second city in the north and economic hub, were "brutally" crushed by regime loyalists, it added.

Two civilians and two mutinous soldiers were also killed Friday in the Homs province town of Tal Kalakh in an ambush by regular army troops, said the watchdog.

Internet activists had urged Syrians to "march to the squares of freedom, bare-chested" on Friday, saying they were ready to confront the regime's "artillery and machinegun fire."

The Observatory's Rami Abdul Rahman told AFP activists are determined to make their voices heard to the monitors despite the bloody crackdown which activists say has killed more than 100 people since monitors arrived Monday.

"The Arab League's initiative is the only ray of light that we now see," said Abdul Rahman.

The mission has been tainted by some controversy, with some opposition members unhappy with the head of the observers General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi -- a veteran Sudanese military intelligence officer.

Dabi this week ruffled feathers by saying Syrian authorities were so far cooperating with the mission and by describing his visit to Homs as "good."

For some, Dabi is a controversial figure because he served under Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes committed in Darfur region.

"The observers must remain in the cities they visit to protect civilians," said prominent human rights lawyer Haytham Maleh who is also a member of the main opposition Syrian National Council.

Speaking to Arab news channels, Maleh said the Arab League must increase the number of monitors to ensure they can verify Assad's regime is implementing all the terms of the plan to end the violence.

Around 66 monitors are currently in Syria but there are plans to deploy between 150 and 200 observers.

"The presence of the observers in Homs broke the barrier of fear," Abdul Rahman said in reference to some 70,000 demonstrators who flooded the streets of the central city Tuesday when the monitors kicked off their mission.

Western powers have urged Syrian to give them full access and Britain's minister for the Middle East and North Africa Alistair Burt echoed those concern on Thursday.

Damascus must "meet fully its obligations to the Arab League," including withdrawing security forces from cities, he said.

But Syria's key ally Russia -- which has resisted Western efforts to push through the U.N. Security Council tough resolutions against Damascus -- said Friday it was happy with the mission so far.

Syria's state SANA news agency reported that massive crowds rallied on Friday in several cities, including Damascus, to support Assad and reject the foreign-orchestrated "plot" that is "targeting Syria's stability and security."



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