Syrians rally amid heavy military presence

By: Alice Fordham

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Tens of thousands of reenergized opponents of the Syrian government gathered Friday for demonstrations across the country on the second day of a fragile cease-fire, but many rallies were thwarted by a heavy military presence, although violence remained relatively low.

Syrian crackdown: Protesters opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have faced violent responses from security forces.

“There are security forces in every part of Damascus, maybe double what I have ever seen before” said Moaz, a independent journalist and activist in the Syrian capital who uses a pseudonym. Main roads were blocked in the city, he said, and protests held in the Mezzeh and Kfar Sousa areas were broken up by gunfire and arrests.

Activists in Hama province reported that the main streets of the city of Hama were also blocked, and that sound bombs, tear gas and live bullets were used to disperse demonstrations.

However, in the rural town of Qalaat al-Madiq near Hama, which has seen heavy fighting in the last few weeks, soldiers allowed a demonstration of thousands of people to take place without firing a shot, said Mousab Alhamadee, an activist in the area.

Friday protests have become customary over the 13 months of a widespread uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, but they have frequently been dispersed by security forces or led to clashes with between soldiers and armed members of the opposition.

This week’s much-anticipated rallies came 36 hours after the beginning of a cease-fire mandated in a peace plan proposed by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan. The plan is backed by Assad, his allies in Russia and China, and Western nations that have called for him to step down.

Activists pointed out that according to the peace plan, heavy weapons and security forces should have been withdrawn from cities, while Syrian officials have said that armed opponents of the government have failed to cease their operations.

Requirements of the plan would seem to have been violated by both sides, as soldiers fired on demonstrations in cities, and two soldiers were killed in an attack near Hama. Five people died across the country as security forces shot at demonstrations, according to a spokesman for the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights who uses the pseudonym Rami Abdulrahman.

However, he added, casualties remained significantly lower than last Friday, when dozens of people were killed, and there were about five times as many people demonstrating across the country as there were last week. The information was not possible to verify, as the Syrian government restricts journalists’ access to the country.

The cease-fire was also marred early Friday by a skirmish in Idlib province near the Turkish border, although no casualties were reported.

The truce remains fragile, said Aram Nerguizian, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Just because it started relatively well, that doesn’t guarantee that either side is going to show more reason than emotion over what to do,” he said. He stressed that large protests within urban centers could damage the “perceived strength” of the Assad government, and spark further violence.

However, said Nerguizian, “the reality is that a lull in the violence is better than the alternative, because if you have a state of violence, both sides will continue to harden their tone and build up arms.”

U.N. officials and Western diplomats have expressed hope that even a partial cease-fire will allow progress on the rest of Annan’s six-point proposal, which includes commitments for the Assad government to allow humanitarian aid, foreign journalists and U.N. monitors to enter Syria. The U.N. Security Council was set to vote Friday on sending an advance team of 10 to 12 observers to the country, with plans to send 250 later.

Moaz, the activist in Damascus, welcomed the prospect. “If these guys from the U.N. enter Damascus,” he said, “they will be a big problem for the regime, because either the people will come out in big demonstrations, or security forces will open fire on the demonstrations, and they will record that in their reports.”

Source: The Washington Post

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