03/24/2011, 00.00
SYRIA

Protests continue in Deraa as the number of dead and wounded mounts

Security forces carry out two attacks, demonstrators say. The authorities blame “armed gangs” and a “one million SMS” sent especially from Israel, pointing the finger at the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, Assad sacks a governor and releases women arrested for demanding the liberation of political prisoners.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Protests continue in Deraa, a town in southern Syria, scene of more clashes yesterday that left between 15, 37 and 100 dead, depending on the sources, including a little girl. Demonstrators said that thousands of security forces and soldiers carried out two attacks. The first occurred at dawn in front of the al-Omari Mosque, the focus of anti-government protest; the second came in the afternoon during the funerals for the victims of the previous day. Power and mobile phone connections to Deraa were cut and soldiers opened fire, protesters said.

Gunfire and violence were also reported in the neighbouring towns of Jassem and Inkhel, where about a thousand people tried to march on Deraa before they were apparently stopped by the military.

Syria’s official news agency SANA continues to blame “armed gangs” for attacks against security forces, publishing pictures of weapons and ammunitions purportedly found inside the al-Omari Mosque.

For the news agency “Foreign circles” are to blame for the “lies about the situation in Daraa” (Deraa). In fact, “more than one million SMS were sent from outside Syria, most of which are from Israel inciting Syrians to use the mosques as launch pads for riots.” Likewise, “photographers and journalists in Daraa reported that they have been receiving death threats through SMS messages from abroad warning them against reporting the crimes committed by the criminals of the armed gangs against civilians.”

Syrian Prime Minister Mohammad Naji Otri added weight to the Israeli connection. “There are some parties,” in “neighbouring countries,” he said, “who plan to separate the national unity of which Syria is proud”.

For Syrian authorities, “armed gangs” and the Israelis are not the only culprits. According to SANA, “Two months ago, the General Supervisor of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, Riyad al-Shaqfa, announced the group's return to military action in the country.”

Any mention of the Muslim Brotherhood places the Ba’athist regime’s historic enemy back in centre stage, and evokes memories of a tragic episode in Syrian history, namely the 1982 crackdown by Hafiz al-Assad, the father of the current president, in the city of Hama, north of Damascus, where the Muslim Brotherhood was actively involved in an insurgency campaign. An estimated 20,000 to 40,000 people were killed in the onslaught.

In an interview today with the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, the former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanouni, said that Syria is facing a “popular intifada”. In his view, the situation in the country is no different from that in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya: lack of freedom to the presence of tyranny, corruption, poverty, and unemployment, not to mention the arrest of opposition figures and unfulfilled promises of reform.

Al-Bayanouni also challenged President Bashar al-Assad's claim in a February interview with the Wall Street Journal, in reference to popular uprisings sweeping across the Arab world. On that occasion, the Syrian president dismissed any comparison with other Arab countries, saying, “we are not Tunisians and we are not Egyptians.”

In any event, Assad has tried to keep a low profile. On the one hand, he has deployed thousands of troops in Deraa and elsewhere; on the other, he had six women released after they were arrested in Damascus for demanding the liberation of political prisoners.

Today, state-run television reported that Assad fired Deraa Governor Faysal Ahmad Khaltoum, one of the demands protesters had made when they met a government delegation sent to the town.

All this is a cause for concern for the regime because Deraa is conservative, devoutly Muslim area that has traditionally supported the Assad regime.

Syria’s crisis is also coming under international scrutiny. In addition to criticism and concerns voiced by US and EU officials over the violent repression against peaceful demonstrators, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for a transparent investigation into the events. (PD)

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