Monday, April 18, 2011

Syria: Thousands demand overthrow of Assad after deaths

(Reuters) - Thousands demanded the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Monday at the funeral of eight protesters killed in the central city of Homs as unrest swelled despite a promise to lift emergency law.
Activists in Homs said the eight were killed late on Sunday during protests against the death in custody of a tribal leader.
Wissam Tarif, a rights activist in contact with people in Syria, said he had the names of 12 people killed in the city.
"From alleyway to alleyway, from house to house, we want to overthrow you, Bashar," the mourners chanted, according to a witness at the funeral.
YouTube footage showed thousands of people in a city square.
Assad, facing a month of demonstrations against his authoritarian Baath Party rule, said on Saturday that legislation to replace nearly half a century of emergency law should be in place by next week.
But his pledge did little to appease protesters calling for greater freedoms in Syria, or curb violence which human rights organisations say has killed at least 200 people.
"Homs is boiling. The security forces and the regime thugs have been provoking armed tribes for a month now," a rights activist told Reuters from the city.
Civilians who took to the streets "were shot at in cold blood," he said.
Further north in Jisr al-Shughour around 1,000 people called on Monday for "the overthrow of the regime," echoing chants of protesters who overthrew leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, at the funeral of a man they said was killed by security forces.
Assad says Syria is the target of a conspiracy and authorities blame the violence on armed gangs and infiltrators supplied with weapons from Lebanon and Iraq.
The unrest, which broke out a month ago in the southern city of Deraa, has spread across Syria and presented the gravest challenge yet to Assad, who assumed the presidency in 2000 when his father Hafez al-Assad died after 30 years in power.
Western countries have condemned the violence but shown no sign of taking action against Assad, a central player in Middle East politics who consolidated his father's anti-Israel alliance withIran and supports Islamist groups Hamas and Hezbollah, while holding intermittent, indirect peace talks with Israel.
In the main port city of Latakia, activists reported deaths from clashes overnight.
"We heard there were several deaths yesterday," a rights activist. "The pattern is repeating itself: protests, killings by security forces, funerals turned into protests, and more killing and vehement slogans against Bashar."
Tarif said there had been five deaths in Latakia overnight, when security forces opened fire on protesters. Ammar Qurabi of Syria's National Organization for Human Rights said he had the names of two dead protesters.
Addressing his newly formed cabinet on Saturday, Assad said ministers should prepare a law to regulate demonstrations, which are illegal under the emergency law in place for 48 years and which bans gatherings of more than five people.
But his statement did nothing to calm the fury of thousands of people at a funeral on Sunday of a conscript whose relatives said had been tortured before he died.
At another funeral on Sunday in the town of Talbiseh, north of Homs, two witnesses said security forces killed three mourners when they opened fire on them.
State news agency SANA said "armed criminals" had opened fire on security forces, killing a policeman and wounding 11 others. It also said a military unit clashed with gunmen on the highway heading north from Homs, killing three gunmen.
"Protesting peacefully is something we respect but blocking roads, sabotage, and carrying out arson is something else and can no longer be ignored," SANA quoted Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem as saying.
Opposition figures say they believe any legislation replacing the emergency rule is likely to retain severe curbs on political freedoms.
Syria has repeatedly blamed the unrest on foreign powers, and the Washington Post reported on Monday that the United States has secretly funded Syrian opposition groups.
The State Department said on Monday that the United States was not working to undermine the Syrian government but is trying to support democratic goals as it does elsewhere in the world.
"Trying to promote a transformation to a more democratic process in this society is not undermining necessarily the existing government," spokesman Mark Toner said.
Assad "needs to address the legitimate aspirations of his people," he said. "No we are not working to undermine that government," Toner said in response to a question.
The Washington Post cited diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks showing that the State Department funneled as much as $6 million since 2006 to Syrian exiles to operate a London-based satellite TV channel and finance activities inside Syria.
Barada TV began broadcasting in April 2009 but has ramped up operations to cover protests.
U.S. money for Syrian opposition figures began flowing under President George W. Bush after political ties with Damascus were frozen in 2005, the newspaper said, and continued despite President Barack Obama's efforts to re-engage with Assad.
(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Diana Abdallah)