Al Jazeera – 2011-04-26 22:00:28
Syria Extends Military Crackdown
DERAA (April 26, 2011) — Syria has sent more troops to the southern town of Deraa where activists say a deadly crackdown against pro-democracy protesters has entered a second day. The developments in the volatile city, near the border with Jordan, come despite mounting international pressure on Bashar al-Assad’s government to end the violence.
Security forces have shot dead 400 civilians since mid-March, Sawasiah, a Syrian human rights organisation, said on Tuesday. Up to 500 people had been arrested in the last two days, it said. “We’ve been listening to live ammunition. Some snipers are working as well, but we don’t know from where,” a resident of Deraa told Al Jazeera on Tuesday. “The snipers are on all the roofs. I’m now on my stomach, on the ground — I am really in a panicked situation. The city is quite in danger.”
Al Jazeera‘s Rula Amin, reporting from Damascus, said the government has reiterated that the troops are in Deraa to protect residents. “What we are hearing from activists in Damascus is fear and concern that what the government is trying to do is crush the protests to create fear among people to stay at home,” she said. “Then [the government will] come up with its own plan of reforms, but people won’t be able to stand up and defy these reforms. That is how the government wants to move forward.”
Last week Assad lifted Syria’s 48-year state of emergency and abolished a hated state security court. But the next day, 100 people were killed during protests across the country.
The Syrian government insists the army was invited in to rid Deraa of armed men. But witnesses said soldiers began opening fire on civilians indiscriminately after arriving, sparking panic in the streets.
Abdullah Abazid, an activist in Deraa, told the AFP news agency: “New army troops and security reinforcements have entered Deraa and a tank was deployed in the central Kaziat al-Balad square.” He said troops were firing on residents and a mosque and had laid siege to the home of Deraa’s chief religious leader, Mufti Rizk Abdulrahman Abazid, who quit last week in protest at the crackdown. “The bullets continue against the people, but we are resisting,” he said.
Abdullah Abazid said the shooting continued well into the afternoon. The Abu Bakr Assidiq mosque, schools and reservoirs were hit and shops looted, he said. He said “tanks and roadblocks are deployed at the entrance to the town”, preventing anyone from entering.
Residents complained that water and electricity had been cut throughout Deraa since dawn on Monday, when 3,000-5,000 government troops backed by tanks and snipers rolled in. Verifying information on the military operation in Deraa has become extremely difficult after what appears to be the deliberate jamming of mobile phone signals across large parts of the city and the cutting of landlines and Internet access. Neither Syrian nor Jordanian mobile phone numbers have been reachable in most parts of Deraa since Monday.
Sawasiah, the Syrian rights group, said on Tuesday it had received reports that at least 20 people had been killed in Deraa. “Witnesses managed to tell us that at least 20 civilians have been killed in Deraa, but we do not have their names and we cannot verify,” a Sawasiah official told Reuters.
Douma and Baniyas Crackdown
Sawasiah said that two more civilians were confirmed dead after government forces entered Douma, a suburb of the capital, Damascus. A huge crackdown began on Monday in Douma and nearby Maadamiye, according to activists and residents reached by telephone.
By Tuesday afternoon Douma had become a “ghost town and the presence of security forces decreased”, one resident told the AFP news agency. A witness said three doctors were arrested from Douma’s Hamdan hospital and security forces made patients leave the facility, even those in intensive care.
Another massive demonstration took place on Tuesday afternoon in Baniyas, an oil-refining port on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, in defiance of a reported military build-up around the city. A protest organiser said up to 5,000 people began the demonstration at about 5pm, which quickly grew to an estimated 10,000, chanting “With our soul and blood we sacrifice to Daraa” and “The people want to topple the regime.”
In a riposte to government claims that the protests are sectarian in nature, the demonstrators chanted: “Syrian people are one, no sectarian division.”
“This is not a sectarian movement,” said the protest organiser. “I know officers in the army from different sects who refuse to shoot at protesters and are being executed. I have spoken to soldiers who told me that they will not open fire and that they will run away when the time is right.”
A second protest leader said security forces had deployed on Tuesday in the hills around Baniyas in preparation for a possible attack to crush the popular uprising there.
“Forces wearing black and carrying AK-47s deployed today in the hills. Armoured personnel carriers passed by the highway adjacent to Baniyas at night,” Anas al-Shaghri told Reuters from the city.
“We are expecting an attack any moment. We will receive them at the gates with our bare chests.”
The first protest leader told Al Jazeera he had taken count of between 35 to 40 tanks stationed around Baniyas.
“I don’t think the army will enter Baniyas like they did in Deraa because there is an oil refinery which they could hit,” he said. For activists like himself and al-Shaghri, he said, the effort to bring down the Syrian government had become a zero-sum game. “Before we knew that when they arrested people they would put them in prison. Now when they arrest people, we never see them again.” he said.
In addition to blocking phone signals, authorities referred Mahmud Issa, a prominent dissident, to military court for owning a satellite phone, a week after his arrest and an interview he gave to Al Jazeera, according to a leading activist.
“Mahmud Issa will be tried by a military court for owning a Thuraya phone and a high-tech computer,” Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Syrian rights group, said. Issa was twice jailed in Syria for a total of 11 years.
Abdel Rahman said another activist, Qassem Azzawi, was arrested on Tuesday for taking part in an anti-government protest last week, and that 43 people were rounded up since Monday in raids across the country while 11 others were freed on Tuesday.
Wissam Tarif, director of Insan, a human rights organisation, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday that his website had been left hacked into and more than 2,000 spam messages left on it, effectively crippling the site. He said his Facebook and Twitter accounts had also been hacked into and hundreds of threatening and abusive messages left. “The messages said that I am history, that they will kill me and they want to drink my blood,” he said. “They also seem to have a big problem with my mother and other members of my family.”
Hacking into activists’ social media accounts using “phishing” operations has been a tactic other governments in the region have used to try to prevent news of uprisings in their own countries from reaching the outside world.
Global Pressure on Assad to End Violence
(April 26, 2011) — As the Syrian government intensifies its crackdown against pro-democracy protesters, the international community steps up its pressure on president Bashar al-Assad to stop the bloodletting.
In a session on Tuesday, members of the UN Security Council discussed the uptick in violence, but failed to issue a collective statement.
Still, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, condemned the violence against “peaceful protesters” and called on the Syrian government to respect the people’s rights to freedom of expression.
“I condemn, utterly, the continuing violence against peaceful demonstrators, most particularly the use of tanks and live fire that have killed and injured hundreds of people,” Ban said. “It goes without saying that Syrian authorities have an obligation to protect civilians and respect international human rights. That includes the right to free expression and peaceful assembly.”
Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, has also criticised the Syrian government for what she called the “abhorrent use of violence to quell protests.” “President Assad is disingenuously blaming outsiders — at the same time seeking Iranian assistance to repress citizens,” she said.
Britain and the US have announced looking into the possibility for imposing sanctions on Syria to push it into halting the violence against protesters and respecting human rights. An estimated 350 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad’s 11-year rule began on March 15.
According to a diplomat on the UN Security Council, France, Britain, Germany and Portugal have circulated a draft media statement to the other members of the council, urging them to strongly condemn the violence against peaceful demonstrators.
As the global leaders met in New York, Amnesty International, the UK-based human rights organisation, called on them to refer the situation in Syria to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, arguing that the body should investigate the allegations of crimes against humanity, including murder and torture.
“The Syrian government is clearly trying to shatter the will of those peacefully expressing dissent by shelling them, firing on them and locking them up,” Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said. “President al-Assad and those around him have to understand that their actions will have consequences, namely that if they gun down their own citizens the international community will hold them individually criminally responsible before the ICC or national courts of states exercising universal jurisdiction.”
Edging towards Intervention
The leaders of France and Italy used strong language during a joint news conference in Rome on Tuesday to condemn the violence in Syria. “We issue a strong call on the authorities in Damascus to end the violent repression against what are peaceful demonstrations,” Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, said.
For his part, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, reaffirmed that no intervention in Syria would be possible without a UN Security Council resolution. Separately, William Hague, the UK foreign secretary, called on Tuesday for an end to the “violent repression” of protests, saying that British officials were working with their allies on possible further measures against Syria.
“The United Kingdom is working intensively with our international partners to persuade the Syrian authorities to stop the violence and respect basic and universal human rights to freedoms of expression and assembly,” Hague told the British parliament. “This includes working with our partners on the United Nations Security Council to send a strong signal to the Syrian authorities that the eyes of the international community are on Syria, and with our partners in the European Union and the region on possible further measures.”
Britain has been hesitant to support a UN resolution on the situation in Syria, but said on Tuesday that its reluctance may fade if the repression continues.
Meanwhile, the US State Department has ordered embassy family members and some non-emergency personnel to leave Syria, after an earlier travel warning telling US citizens to leave the country due to escalating violence.
A US official said on Monday the US administration was considering sanctions against senior figures in Assad’s government. The measures, which could freeze those officials’ assets and ban them from doing business in the US, would probably come in the form of an executive order signed by the US president, the official said. The US response so far has been limited to tough words but little concrete action against the Syrian government, in contrast to its role in a NATO-led air campaign against Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader.
“The brutal violence used by the government of Syria against its people is completely deplorable,” Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said on Monday.
Syria is already under US sanctions, aid restrictions and export bans, due to its presence on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. Barack Obama, in a statement on Friday, told Syria that its bloody crackdown on protesters “must come to an end now” and accused it of seeking Iranian help to repress its people.
Closer to home, hundreds of demonstrators rallied on Tuesday in front of the Syrian embassy in Cairo, calling for Assad’s resignation. The majority of the 500 protesters were of Syrian origin, joined by some Egyptians.
“We are here just like to tell Bashar al-Assad either step down, stop the bloodshed, stop it. Everybody’s dying in there, either step down, let us take control, let the people live, make people free,” Hazem Hakim, a Syrian national, said. Many of the protesters refused to speak in front of a camera or give their names in fear for the safety of their families who currently reside in Syria.
Turkey has increased diplomatic pressure on Syria to halt its crackdown on protesters, a day after a protest outside the Syrian embassy in the Turkish capital, Ankara. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish prime minister, called Assad on Tuesday to press for reform, while Turkey’s ambassador to Damascus met Adel Safar, the Syrian prime minister, to express Turkey’s “deep concern and sorrow over loss of many lives,” the prime minister’s office and Turkish media reported. Erdogan, who has close ties with Assad, had conferred with Obama about the turmoil on Monday.
The violence also is fuelling opposition by human rights groups and a growing number of governments to Syria’s all-but-certain election to the 47-nation Human Rights Council. It is one of four candidates selected to fill four Asian seats and Syria can lose only if diplomats find another candidate to enter the race or it fails to win a majority of votes in a May 20 election in the 192-member General Assembly.
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