Syrian security forces shoot protesters Dozens reported dead in bloodiest day of uprising so far as "Great Friday" demonstrations rock several cities
April 22, 2011
As many as 70 people were reported to have been killed in Syria on the bloodiest day of the uprising, as security forces use live ammunition and tear gas to quell anti-government protests across the country.
Activists sent a list naming 70 people from across the country who they said had been killed by security forces during the "Great Friday" protests.
Fifteen of the deaths took place in Izraa, near the flashpoint southern town of Daraa, according to the list. One person was killed in Damascus, where security forces also fired tear gas to disperse protesters, other sources confirmed.
This was the first death at the hands of security forces in the capital since the uprising against the government of Bashar al-Assad began.
Deaths were also reported in the Damascus suburb of Douma, as well as in Homs, Syria's third largest city, and in Daraa and other towns.
The protesters took to the streets to mark what activists dubbed "Great Friday" - protests that could turn out to be the biggest against the government to date.
Al Jazeera's Rula Amin reported from Damascus, which until now was relatively calm, that the level of tension in the city on Friday marked a new point in the uprising.
"This day is turning into a very bloody day, probably the bloodiest since the protests started," she said.
In the capital, however, a heavy security presence prevented protests from taking off.
"Obviously the government wanting to make a point, the capital is a redline and they will not allow the protests to reach the capital."
Referring to the use of live bullets and tear gas by security forces across the country, she said that the level of violence has escalated.
A government spokesperson told Al Jazeera on Friday that security forces would fire on protesters only if they were fired upon first.
State television, meanwhile, aired a talk show where speakers blamed foreign media, including Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and BBC Arabic, for inciting the protests.
Violence in Homs
A witness in Homs told Al Jazeera by phone that one of those killed in the city by government officers was a 25-year-old protester named Mohammed Bassam al-Kahil.
Speaking under condition of anonymity, the activist described how about 200 protesters, moving ahead of a 3,000-strong group, came under fire as they marched down Cairo Street, close to the Clock Square that has been the city's focus for protests.
"Suddenly the security opened fire on us randomly," the man said.
Meanwhile, a witness in Hasakah, in Syria's mainly Kurdish northeast, told Al Jazeera that demonstrators gathering at a mosque after prayers were attacked by pro-government protesters.
Syrian activists co-ordinating the protests against al-Assad's rule have demanded the abolition of his Baath Party's monopoly on power and the establishment of a democratic political system.
In the first joint statement since protests erupted five weeks ago, the Local Co-ordination Committees, representing provinces across Syria, said "freedom and dignity slogans cannot be achieved except through peaceful democratic change".
"All prisoners of conscience must be freed. The existing security apparatus has to be dismantled and replaced by one with specific jurisdiction and which operates according to law," said the joint statement.
Contest of wills
On the eve of the protests, witnesses said security forces were setting up checkpoints in areas surrounding Damascus, checking people's ID cards.
The demonstrations are a test of whether Assad's decision to lift emergency law, imposed by his Baath Party when it took power in a coup 48 years ago, will defuse mass discontent with repression and corruption.
Haitham Maleh, who heads the Syrian Human Rights Association, a civil-rights group, told Al Jazeera that the regime's reforms only went a fraction of the way towards satisfying the protesters' demands for more freedom, democracy and the legalisation of opposition parties.
"The government will not do anything, I think, and the strikes will get bigger and bigger," he said.
Al Jazeera's Amin said that because one of the conditions for the newly gained right to protest was to request a permit, today's protests fell outside of the changes.
"There was no time for anyone to ask for permission for today," she said.
Aided by his family and a pervasive security apparatus, Assad, 45, has absolute power in Syria.
More than 220 protesters have been killed since pro-democracy protests erupted on March 18 in Daraa, rights campaigners say.
A decree Assad signed on Thursday that lifted emergency law is seen by the opposition as little more than symbolic, since other laws still give entrenched security forces wide powers.
Human Right Watch, the New York-based rights monitor, said Assad "has the opportunity to prove his intentions by allowing [Friday's] protests to proceed without violent repression.
"The reforms will only be meaningful if Syria's security services stop shooting, detaining, and torturing protesters," Joe Stork, the group's deputy Middle East director, said.
The authorities have blamed armed groups, infiltrators and Sunni Muslim armed groups for provoking violence at demonstrations by firing on civilians and security forces.
Commenting on the Syrian situation, Robert Fisk, the veteran Middle East reporter for the UK's Independent newspaper, says Assad appears to be "stepping backwards" [see above video for full interview].
"Once you start giving these concessions, the crowds on the streets want more and it will always end at the same demand: end of the dictator," he told Al Jazeera from Beirut on Friday.
With his belated concessions, Assad is "is now enduring the failures that he committed 11 years ago", he said.
While crowds in Damascus and Deraa are getting bigger, Fisk said Assad will not be fleeing Syria yet.
"He's in a lot of trouble and there must be a lot of talk in the presidential palace tonight," he said.
Western and other Arab countries have mostly muted their criticism of the killings in Syria for fear of destabilising the country, which plays a strategic role in many of the conflicts in the Middle East.
Syria is technically at war with Israel but has kept its Golan Heights front quiet since a 1974 ceasefire.
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