Eid protests across Syria defy tanks and troops

AMMAN,  (Reuters) – Security forces shot dead four  demonstrators yesterday as people streamed out of mosques after  prayers to mark the end of Ramadan and renewed protests against  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, activists and residents said.

The victims, who included a 13-year-old boy, were killed in  the towns of al-Hara and Inkhil in southern Deraa province.

Demonstrations broke out elsewhere across the country,  notably in Damascus suburbs, the city of Homs, 165 km (100 miles  to the north) and the northwestern province of Idlib, the  sources said.

“The people want the downfall of the president,” protesters  shouted in the Damascus suburb of Harasta, where activists said  dozens of soldiers defected at the weekend after refusing to  shoot at the crowds.

In the adjacent Saqba suburb a crowd held their shoes up in  the air — an insulting gesture in the Arab world — and chanted  anti-Assad slogans.

According to one activist group, troops have killed at least  551 civilians during Ramadan, the holiest period in the Islamic  calendar.

Five months into the street uprising against his rule,  Assad, from Syria’s minority Alawite sect, is facing more  frequent demonstrations. Protesters have been encouraged by the  overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, with whom Assad had close  ties, and rising international pressure on the ruling hierarchy.

The Obama administration froze the U.S. assets of Foreign  Minister Walid al-Moualem and two other Syrian officials on  Tuesday in response to Assad’s increasingly bloody crackdown.

The Treasury Department also named Ali Abdul Karim Ali,  Syria’s Ambassador to Lebanon, where Assad wields influence  through the Shi’ite Hezbollah guerrilla group, and his adviser  Bouthaina Shaaban.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United  States had imposed the sanctions on the three because of the  “role that they play in propagating and advancing the reign of  terror that Assad is exacting on their own people”.

Moualem and Shaaban have appeared in the media defending  military assaults on towns and cities, saying Syrian forces were  pursuing “terrorists”. They are not part of Assad’s  decision-making inner circle, composed of his younger brother  Maher, other family members and top security officials already  on the U.S. sanctions list.

Opposition figures in Syria see international pressure as  crucial to stripping Assad of legitimacy and in helping raise  the momentum of peaceful protests.

Residents and activists are reporting increasing defections  among Syrian troops, drawn mostly from the Sunni majority  population but dominated by Alawite officers effectively under  the command of Maher.

In the capital, YouTube footage showed soldiers from core  units roaming the centre in green public transport buses, their  AK-47s hanging out from the doors, to prevent protests, which  broke out nonetheless in Qaboun, Kfar Souseh, Rukn al-Din and  Maydan districts, activists said.

   MORAL GROUND

In a report published yesterday, the Syrian Revolution  Coordinating Union grassroots activists’ group said Assad’s  forces killed 551 people during Ramadan and that 130 others were  killed on July 31, the eve of Ramadan, in a tank assault on the  city of Hama, scene of a 1982 massacre by the military.

“The report does not include the number of martyrs who were  not identified by name nor… bodies that were abducted (by  security forces) and not returned to their families,” it said.

Amnesty International said that deaths in Syrian prisons and  police detention had soared in recent months as Assad’s  government tried to crush the protests.

The London-based human rights group said it had details of  at least 88 people believed to have died in detention between  April and mid-August. At least 52 of them had apparently  suffered some form of torture that was likely to have  contributed to their death.

Chibli Mallat, a professor of law at Harvard, and chairman  of the Right to Nonviolence international group of public  figures, said Syria’s death toll, although high, was still  less  than Libya, where the revolution turned into armed conflict and  needed NATO’s help.

“It may be also the case in Syria today … But is it  necessary to reach the point that arms are engaged?” Mallat said  in an article published yesterday in Egypt’s al-Ahram online.

“Is it not wiser, albeit perhaps more frustrating, to keep  the revolution pure in the tenacity of its nonviolence, rather  than lose the absolute moral superiority against violent  rulers?” said Mallat, who is Lebanese.

The official state news agency said state television had  aired an audio recording of two “terrorists” who described  themselves as activists.

It said the tape revealed “a full agenda of provocation and  targeting police and army camps and terrorising peaceful  citizens in the name of freedom and non-violence”.

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