Syria protests continue despite president’s promises to lift emergency laws
By Tara Bahrampour, April 17
BEIRUT – Protesters took to the streets again across Syria on Sunday, a day after President Bashar al-Assad vowed to lift emergency laws in place for almost 50 years.
Shouting, “The people want freedom,” protesters clashed with government supporters in the southern Syrian town of As Suwaida around midday, a witness there said. By afternoon activists were reporting protests in the city of Daraa and in Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city, which until this week had been largely free of protests. Demonstrations were also reported in Banyas, Jableh, Homs and Latakia.
Internet and mobile phone service was cut off in areas of Damascus and it suburbs Sunday afternoon, activists said.
Sunday’s demonstrations took place on the 65th anniversary of Syria’s independence from French rule.
In As Suwaida, around 200 protesters gathered at a shrine to independence hero Sultan Pasha Al-Atrash, singing the national anthem until they were interrupted by about 300 government supporters, said Alaa, 24, a demonstrator who did not want his last name used for fear of reprisals. He said that Hani Al-Atrash, a grandson of Al-Atrash, was badly beaten in the melee.
In Daraa, another southern city that became the cradle of the rebellion after teenagers there were arrested and tortured for spray painting anti-regime graffiti, videos posted on YouTube showed hundreds chanting “The people want to topple the regime!”
Activists said additional protests were planned later in the day in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, but by afternoon, the Internet and mobile phone networks had been shut down there. Foreign press have been expelled from Syria, making it hard to confirm details, and activists inside Syria have relied heavily on the Internet to disseminate information about demonstrations.
In As Suwaida, about 500 protesters gathered for a second time Sunday, carrying flags and signs, Alaa said, adding that the group, which included old and young, male and female, was met by government supporters in vehicles and on foot, armed with metal and wooden sticks and belts.
“They started to beat everyone they saw in the way,” Alaa said. “They called us anti-regime, spies, they started to swear at us and say dirty words. They said that we are not from As Suwaida, that we are not sons of the mountains, that we are not Arabs.”
The pro-regime group was comprised of well-known regime supporters from the town, he said, adding that they seemed well-organized and carried pictures, signs and megaphones. Government security forces were out in large numbers, he said, but did not interfere.
Ten people were injured in the Suwaida protests, activists said, two seriously. Still, government forces have appeared to hold back deadly fire in recent days, in an apparent attempt to prevent additional protests.
Assad has tried to diffuse the crisis in recent days by appointing a new cabinet, releasing hundreds of people detained without charge, and promising to lift emergency laws that have restricted dissent for five decades.
His announcement carried a veiled threat to protesters, however. Once the laws are lifted, he said, “there will no longer be a need to organize demonstrations in Syria.” He said the state would not “tolerate any act of sabotage.”
Activists have scoffed at the gestures, calling them ploys, and have vowed to continue protesting.