Death toll rising in Syria


At least 90 people were reportedly killed and dozens were injured when Syrian security forces fired live bullets and teargas to disperse “Good Friday” protests in several cities, witnesses reported. The death toll seemed to be rising late Friday.

The reported deaths have created a new crisis for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, raising questions about whether he is fully in control of Syrian security forces. The deaths raise questions about how far Mr. Assad is prepared to go to stay in power, and if the international community will take steps to prevent a humanitarian disaster in this geopolitically strategic Arab country.

The deaths on Friday also bring back memories of large numbers of political opponents who were mowed down by security forces in the city of Hama when Mr. Assad’s late father, President Hafez al-Assad was in office. Mr. Assad’s brother, Rifaat al-Assad, personally conducted a “scorched earth” campaign in February 1982 against Sunni Muslims who protested against the Alawite regime of Hafez al-Assad. Estimates of those killed in Hama range from 10,000 to 40,000.

On Friday, thousands of protesters swarmed the streets in the southern flashpoint town of Deraa, Moadamia, Latakia, Banias, and the mainly Kurdish northeastern city of Qamishli. Thirty were killed in the southern town of Izzra’, 22 in Damascus, 18 in the Homs area and the rest in other towns and villages, activists said, in what was the deadliest day so far during weeks of protest.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement that two boys aged 7 and 10 years old were among those killed in Izzra’ as was a 70-year-old man.
“The Syrian authorities have again responded to peaceful calls for change with bullets and batons. They must immediately halt their attacks on peaceful protesters and instead allow Syrians to gather freely as international law demands,” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa director.
“They must also immediately launch an independent investigation into what happened and ensure that any security forces found to have carried out these killings are brought to justice,” Mr. Smart said.
Hundreds also protested in Midan, a district just outside the walled boundaries of Old Damascus, which was heavily bombed by French colonial forces during the 1925-1926 Great Syrian Revolt against French rule.

“Freedom, freedom,” and “God, Syria, freedom, that’s all,” the protesters, who witnesses said numbered around 6,000, chanted in Qamishli as they carried a giant Syrian flag.

In Deraa, a key focus of the unprecedented demonstrations that broke out more than a month ago, called for the fall of President Assad’s regime.

The protests, in the city which saw the outbreak of Syria’s five-week-old popular demonstrations, came a day after Mr. Assad lifted a draconian state of emergency which had been in place for nearly five decades—one of the key demands of the protesters.

Syria’s army deployed in the city of Homs and police put up checkpoints across the capital, witnesses said.

President Assad, 46, has been in power since his father, Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, issued decrees Thursday to scrap the state of emergency as well as abolish the state security court and allow citizens to hold peaceful demonstrations.

The moves are aimed at placating a pro-democracy movement that has seen protests across the 23-million population country, ruled by one of the Middle East’s most fearsomely autocratic regimes since the Baath Party seized power 48 years ago.

Activists and rights groups have called the moves insufficient and urged the authorities not to suppress the “Good Friday” rallies which some said would test the regime’s sincerity in forging with reforms.

A Facebook group that has been a motor of the unprecedented protests called for the rallies spanning the Christian and Muslim faiths on “Good Friday,” which commemorates Jesus Christ’s crucifixion.

Friday is also the Muslim day of rest when the biggest demonstrations have been staged across Syria after weekly prayers in mosques.

Joshua Landis, head of the Center for Middle East Studies and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma in the United States, said, “Friday will be a day of reckoning,” according to AFP.

(Mustapha Ajbaili of Al Arabiya can be reached at: [email protected]. Abeer Tayel, also of Al Arabiya, can be reached via at: [email protected].)