Saturday, August 27, 2011

Syrian authorities warn against protesting in capital

Syria's Interior Ministry warned Damascus residents Saturday against demonstrating after some of the most intense protests in the capital since the start of the five-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
The warning came as Syria's closest ally Iran said Damascus must listen to the "legitimate demands" of its people, but also said that any change in Syria's ruling system or power vacuum in Damascus would be dangerous for the Middle East.
"The Interior Ministry calls on citizens not to respond to social Internet sites to participate in rallies or assemble in public squares in Damascus. This is for their safety," a statement by the ministry published on official media said.
Syrian forces fired live ammunition to prevent thousands of protesters from marching on the center of Damascus from eastern suburbs earlier Saturday, witnesses and activists said, seriously injuring at least five people.
Security police and militiamen loyal to Assad, known as 'shabbiha', also fired live ammunition at worshippers who tried to demonstrate outside the al-Rifai mosque in the Kfar Sousa district of the capital, home to the secret police headquarters.
Assad loyalists also beat the mosque's preacher, popular cleric Osama al-Rifai, who was treated with several stitches to his head, witnesses said.
"Some of the 'amn' (security) went on the roof and began firing from their AK-47s to scare the crowd. Around 10 people were wounded, with two hit by bullets in the neck and chest," a cleric who lives in the area told Reuters by phone.
The United Nations says 2,200 people have been killed since Assad sent in tanks and troops to crush months of street demonstrations calling for an end to his family's 41-year rule.
Syrian authorities have blamed armed "terrorist groups" for the bloodshed and say 500 police and army have been killed. They have expelled most independent journalists, making it difficult to verify events on the ground.
Syria's ally Iran said Assad must respond to the "legitimate demands of the people," but unlike other regional powers it did not criticize Assad's use of force to crush protests and said there should be no change to Syria's ruling system.
"If there is a change or a vacuum in Syria's system of governance, it will have unforeseen consequences," Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said. "...The outbreak of change in Syria will not have good consequences for anyone in the region and can subject the region to serious crisis."
Assad, from Syria's minority Alawite sect, has strengthened an alliance with Iran's Shi'ite clerical rulers, to the disquiet of Syria's Sunni majority. He also backs Lebanese and Palestinian militant groups.
The United States has accused Tehran of providing support to Assad's forces crushing the protests.
A delegate to the Arab League in Cairo said Arab foreign ministers would step up pressure on Assad later Saturday with a demand he end the crackdown on demonstrators.
"There has been an agreement in talks held between the Arab states on...pressuring the Syrian regime to completely stop the military operations and withdraw its forces," he said.
At least three protesters were killed in Syria Saturday as tens of thousands of people marched to demand the removal of Assad on a major religious occasion, activists and residents said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), citing witnesses, said more demonstrations had broken out in Damascus overnight and Saturday morning than at any time since the pro-democracy uprising erupted in March.
Two of the three were killed as Assad's forces fired live ammunition to disperse demonstrators streaming from mosques in the city of Qusair and Latakia port after al-Qadr prayers, the night Muslims believe the Prophet received the Koran.
SOHR, headed by dissident Rami Abdelrahman, said Syrian forces fired at a funeral turned protest Saturday in the town of Kfar Roumeh in the northwestern Idlib province bordering Turkey, wounding at least ten.
The organization said another man was killed in raids and house-to-house arrests in the nearby town of Kfar Nubul.
"Besides the killings, another tragedy in Syria is the tens of thousands of people arrested since the beginning of uprising, many of whose whereabouts are unknown," Abdelrahman told Reuters.
The United States and EU have urged Assad to step down but their push at the U.N. to impose Security Council sanctions on Syria over its crackdown has met resistance from Russia and China, diplomats said.More...

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