Friday, March 25, 2011

At least 15 people were killed as thousands took to the streets in or made their way to the restive Syrian city of Daraa, where deadly clashes erupted over the last week between protesters and security forces.

Sources told CNN the slain people were trying to march to Daraa, where an eyewitness, Abdullah, also reported many casualties in the city.

"Thousands gathered and moved to the governor's building in Daraa and there, they burned a large picture of Bashar al-Assad, and then they toppled statue of Hafez al-Assad in the center of the square," he said, referring to the current president and his late father, the former president.

"After that, armed men came out from the roof of the officers' club in front of the governor's officer and started firing at the crowd," said Abdullah, who asked that his full name not be reported due to security concerns.

Aman al Aswad, an opposition activist, told CNN about ongoing clashes with security forces in the central square. He said it appears that tens of people have been killed or injured, but it is unclear precisely how many.

CNN was unable to independently confirm the accounts as the Syrian government has yet to grant access to the network.

Earlier, anti-government rhetoric rang out across the town in an outpouring that drew more than 100,000 people, according to Kamal Aswad, a political activist in Daraa.

People decried recent government pronouncements for reforms and an assertion by Bouthina Shabaan that the country's president ordered "no live bullets" would be used against demonstrators.

One witness said the people chanted "Bouthina we do not want your bread, we want dignity." He said an "overwhelming number" of protesters came out in support of "martyrs" in Daraa, people who were killed in recent clashes.

"The whole of the city was out in the street to bury the dead and demand that those responsible be tried for their crimes against the people of Daraa," the witness said. "We broke the barrier of fear today and the security forces could not touch us."

The witness said the security forces had withdrawn from the center of the city and didn't interfere with the demonstrations, stoked by a range of political and economic grievances.

The Human Rights Watch, among other groups, said on Thursday that around three dozen people were killed in clashes in a 48-hour period.

Syria's security forces are showing the same cruel disregard for protesters' lives as their counterparts in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

"President Bashar al-Assad's talk about reforms doesn't mean anything when his security forces are mowing down people who want to talk about them."

The government on Thursday announced a number of measures apparently addressing protesters' demands. Among them, decrees to cut taxes and raise government workers salaries by 1,500 Syrian pounds ($32.60 US) a month and pledges to provide more press freedoms, increased job opportunities and curbs on government corruption.

The government said it will form a committee "to contact and listen to citizens in Daraa."

It also said it would study lifting the country's emergency law and new legislation that would license political parties.

Syria's emergency law has been in effect since 1963. The law allows the government to make preventive arrests and override constitutional and penal code statutes. It also bars detainees who haven't been charged from filing court complaints or from having a lawyer present during interrogations.

There were pockets of smaller turnouts in Syria on Friday.

Haytham Manna, a Syrian rights activist who lives in France and originally hails from Daraa, reported demonstrations in Raqqa, where there were reports of arrests and injuries, Latakia, and Homs.

Haitham Maleh, a Syrian human rights lawyer in Damascus, said demonstrators turned out in Deir Al-Zour and were roughed up in Damascus.

"Syria today is like a barrel of gunpowder, and may explode at any moment," Maleh said. "What is happening in Syria cannot be tolerated anymore. We have been subjected to oppression, domination and suppression by the security authorities and we have unemployment exceeding 30 per cent, while 60 per cent of us live below the poverty line."

Maleh's son, Iyas, said Haitham Maleh Foundation for the Defense of Syrian Human Rights Defenders said the group asked the International Criminal Court to investigate possible crimes against humanity committed by Syrian forces.

The ICC told CNN "Syria is not a State Party to the Rome Statute. Therefore, intervention by the ICC on the alleged crimes committed in Syria can occur only if the Syrian authorities accept the jurisdiction of the Court, (through article 12(3) of the Rome Statute). In the absence of such step, the United Nations Security Council can decide to refer the situation to the Court."

But Iyas Maleh is hoping that the Security Council will take action.

"If not then I guess we will have to wait until there is a recognized Syrian transitional government who can sign the Rome statute."


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