ASSAD KILLS 44 PRO-DEMOCRACY PROTESTERS, INCLUDING CHILDREN

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Syrian security forces on Friday shot dead at least 44 people, including children, during pro-democracy protests across the country, activists and witnesses told Al Arabiya.

Pro-democracy protests erupted in several Syrian towns and villages on Friday, with demonstrators calling for more freedom in defiance of a brutal crackdown, as President Barack Obama of the United States put fresh pressure on Damascus to curb a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

His exhortations obviously did not carry much weight with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. The regime’s well-armed forces shot into crowds as they rallied in Damascus, Banias, Qamishli, Homs and Hama, defying heavy security deployed to quell an uprising against the autocratic rule of Mr. Assad, witnesses and activists said.

The opposition had called for massive demonstrations across the country after the Friday prayers, promising a “surprise” for President Assad’s regime in the two major power centers, Damascus and Aleppo.

“People are ready for this Friday,” said the Syrian Revolution 2011, a Facebook group spurring anti-regime protests, according to Agence-France Presse.

“Damascus and Aleppo are preparing a surprise for the regime and the shabbiha,” it added in reference to pro-government “thugs,” without elaborating.

“We will not be tolerant with the security forces or shabbiha,” it said. “We won’t let them arrest us and we will be like a thorn in their throat.”

Crucially, both Damascus and Aleppo have so far been largely spared the unrest roiling the 23-million-people country and it is widely believed that should massive demonstrations begin there that would mark a serious setback for the authoritarian regime.

Friday’s protests were called amid mounting pressure by the international community for the Syrian government to stop its crackdown on demonstrators who have taken to the streets, emboldened by revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

Some 1,400 Syrians, many of them women and children without belongings, meanwhile, crossed the border with Lebanon last week to join many more who have fled the unrest at home, the UN refugee agency said Friday.

“Most of the people who have crossed the border in recent weeks are women and children. In addition to their immediate need for food, shelter and medical help, they also need psycho-social support,” UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told reporters in Geneva.

According to local Lebanese leaders some 1,400 people have crossed into the Wadi Khaled and Tall Biri regions over the past week from the Syrian border town of Tall Kalakh, he said.

“Local authorities estimate that around 4,000 Syrians have crossed to Lebanon recently. The exact numbers are difficult to confirm,” the spokesman added.

In a major speech Thursday on the Middle East, President Obama urged his Syrian counterpart Mr. Assad, who is facing the greatest challenge to his 11-year rule, to lead a political transition to democracy or “get out of the way.”

“The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests,” Mr. Obama said.

Damascus, however, defiantly rejected the warning, countering that Mr. Obama’s appeal was not aimed at easing tensions in Syria but rather at sowing discord.

“Obama is inciting violence when he says that Assad and his regime will face challenges from the inside and will be isolated on the outside if he fails to adopt democratic reforms,” the official news agency SANA said.

The government newspaper al-Thawra also criticized the US president saying: “He (Obama) didn’t forget his arrogance in telling a sovereign country what to do ... and threatening to isolate this country if it fails to do as told.”

More than 850 people have been killed and thousands arrested since the protests began in mid-March, according to human rights groups and the United Nations.

Mr. Assad’s government has blamed the violence on “armed terrorist gangs” backed by Islamists and foreign agitators.

The confident 46-year-old president earlier this week said he believes the unrest was coming to an end and, in an unusual step, acknowledged “mistakes” by the country’s security services.

Syria deployed tanks in a border village on Thursday, witnesses told Reuters, ignoring growing international pressure calling on President Assad to stop trying to crush popular unrest or step aside.

Rights groups troops backed by tanks deployed in a Syrian border village, clearly visible from adjacent Lebanon.

On Thursday Syrian soldiers could be seen deploying along a stream in Arida, a Syrian village next to Lebanon’s northern border, and entering homes. Lebanese soldiers fanned out on their side of the frontier.

Earlier, sporadic gunfire and shelling were heard from the village. Arida is near the mostly Sunni Muslim town of Tel Kalakh, where one rights activist says Syrian troops have killed at least 27 civilians since entering on Saturday, Reuters reported.

A resident said that armored personnel carriers and dozens of buses filled with soldiers had begun pulling out of Tel Kalakh around noon on Thursday and were heading north.

The protests have posed the greatest challenge to nearly five decades of rule by his Baath party, which is controlled by members of the minority Alawite community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Western powers initially were hesitant to criticize Mr. Assad’s regime due to Syria’s geopolitical and strategic importance in the region and fears of possible civil war if the regime were to collapse.

Washington and its European allies imposed sanctions on President Assad and his top aides this week in a bid to pressure his authoritarian regime to stop a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests roiling the country for the last two months.

(Mustapha Ajbaili, an editor at Al Arabiya, can be reached at: [email protected]. Abeer Tayel, an editor at Al Arabiya, can be reached at: [email protected])