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Wave of unrest shakes Syria
DAMASCUS, Mar 20 (Agencies):
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Published on 21 Mar. 2011 12:47 AM IST
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Crowds set fire to the headquarters of the ruling Baath Party in the Syrian city of Deraa on Sunday, residents said, as the wave of unrest in the Arab world shook even one of its most authoritarian states.
The demonstrators also set ablaze the main courts complex and two phone company branches. One of the firms, Syriatel, is owned by President Bashar al-Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf.
“They burned the symbols of oppression and corruption,” an activist said. “The banks nearby were not touched.”
Thousands rallied to demand an end to 48 years of emergency law in the southern city, on the third consecutive day of protests emerging as the biggest ever challenge to Syria’s ruling party since it seized power nearly half a century ago.
“No, no to emergency law. We are a people infatuated with freedom,” marchers chanted, despite the arrival in Deraa of a government delegation to pay condolences to relatives of victims killed by security forces in demonstrations there this week.
Security forces fired tear gas at the protesters. Around 40 people were taken to be treated for gas inhalation at the main Omari mosque in the old city, residents said.
“The mosque is now a field hospital. The security forces know they cannot enter the old city without spilling more blood,” one resident said.
Syria has been under emergency law since the Baath Party, which is headed by president Bashar al-Assad, took power in a 1963 coup and banned all opposition.
Makhlouf is under specific U.S. sanctions for what Washington regards as public corruption and has been a target of protesters chanting “thief”. He owns several large businesses.
Security forces opened fire on Friday on civilians taking part in a peaceful protest in Deraa demanding the release of 15 schoolchildren detained for writing protest graffiti, political freedoms and an end to corruption. Four people were killed.
An official statement said “infiltrators” claiming to be high ranking officers had been visiting security stations and asking security forces to fire at any suspicious gathering.
Citizens should report anyone suspected of trying to fool the security apparatus “into using violence and live ammunition against any suspicious gathering”, the statement said.
The government sought to calm discontent by promising to release immediately the 15 children, who had written slogans on walls inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
The statement was a rare instance of Syria’s ruling hierarchy responding to popular pressure.
Tens of people arrested on Friday have been released, but scores more were still in jail, activists said.
On Saturday, thousands of mourners called for “revolution” at the funeral of two of the protesters. Officials later met Deraa notables who presented then with a list of demands.
It included the release of political prisoners, dismantling of secret police headquarters in Deraa, dismissal of the governor, public trial for those responsible for the killings and scrapping of regulations requiring permission from the secret police to sell and buy property.
Non-violent protests have challenged the Baath Party’s authority this month, with the largest protests in Deraa drawing thousands of people.
A silent protest in Damascus by 150 people this week demanded the release of thousands of political prisoners. At least one activist from Deraa, Diana al-Jawabra, took part in the protest. She was arrested on charges of weakening national morale, along with 32 other protesters, a lawyer said.
Jawabra, who is from a prominent family, was campaigning for the release of the 15 schoolchildren from her home city. Another woman from Deraa, physician Aisha Aba Zeid, was arrested three weeks ago for airing a political opinion on the internet.
Protest in Syria; clashes killed 5
Thousands of Syrians rallied today for a third consecutive day in a tense southern city where security forces killed at least five protesters, signaling that unrest in yet another Arab country is taking root.
A witness in Daraa told The Associated Press by telephone that protesters were angry about the shooting Friday and mass arrests after the demonstrations calling for political freedoms in one of the region’s most repressive countries. They demanded officials involved in the violence be fired.
An activist in Damascus who is in close contact with Daraa residents said protesters were particularly incensed at a delegation from President Bashar Assad that came to offer condolences to the families of the dead.
Another Damascus activist said police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition, killing one person. He said more than 200 people suffered from gas inhalation and were treated at a nearby mosque that has been transformed into a field hospital.
Neither the witnesses nor the activists would allow their names to be used, for fear of government retaliation. Their accounts could not be immediately confirmed. Syria keeps a tight lid on information, particularly when it comes to security issues.
Syria’s government appeared to try to calm the situation later. An official promised to free 70 people held after the deadly protests Friday as well as the teenagers whose detention after scrawling anti-government graffiti touched off the unrest.
The Syrian official said an investigative committee recommended firing several government and security officials in Daraa, accusing them of mishandling Friday’s protests. The Damascus activist said thousands of protesters called for an end to emergency laws, in place since the ruling Baath Party took power in 1963.
Syrian police sealed off Daraa after Friday’s demonstrations, allowing residents to leave the city but not to enter. The National Organisation for Human Rights said authorities randomly arrested people who participated in Friday’s protests in at least five cities, including the coastal town of Banyas, Homs and the capital Damascus.

 
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