Forces deployed in Syria`s Homs city, residents defiant

The protesters have been demanding political freedoms, an end to corruption.

Last Updated: Apr 21, 2011, 09:19 AM IST

Amman: Plain clothes security forces toting Ak-47s deployed in Homs overnight, a witness said on Thursday, as the central Syrian city defied a crackdown following the killing of 21 pro-democracy protesters this week.

Residents, expecting more attacks from gunmen loyal to President Bashar al-Assad known as "al-shabbiha”, have organised into unarmed groups to guard neighbourhoods, said the witness, who reached Homs after going through two road blocks manned by security police.

"The atmosphere is tense. Another day of strikes is planned tomorrow," the witness said.

The witness, a human rights campaigner who did not want to be further identified, was referring to shops that closed after 21 protesters were shot dead by security police and shabbiha forces on Monday and Tuesday, according to rights campaigners.

The protests, which intensified after a tribal leader died in custody following a demonstration in Homs 10 days ago, have been demanding political freedoms and an end to corruption.

Homs, a strategic city 165 km (100 miles) off a main highway north of Damascus, became the latest flashpoint in Syria after demonstrations inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia erupted in southern Syria last month.

Assad has tried to appease mass discontent by ordering his cabinet to pass a law lifting 48 years of emergency rule, but opposition figures say the move, which the rubberstamp cabinet approved on Tuesday, will not halt repression.

Rights groups say more than 200 people have been killed since protests started. Washington said a new law requiring permits to hold demonstrations made it unclear if the end of emergency rule would make for a less restrictive Syrian state.

In and out of isolation

The United States tentatively joined a Western drive to rehabilitate Assad after Barack Obama became President, while maintaining criticism of Syria`s human rights record.

Syria is involved in several Middle East conflicts. Any change at the top -- Assad, backed by his family and the security apparatus, is Syria`s absolute ruler -- would ripple across the Arab world and affect Syria`s ally Iran.

The leadership backs the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas and Lebanon`s Hezbollah but seeks peace with Israel. Assad was largely rehabilitated in the West after being isolated for years after the 2005 assassination of Rafik al-Hariri, a Lebanese parliamentarian and a former prime minister.

In Homs, protesters took to the streets in large numbers again on Wednesday. Their chants demanded "the downfall of the regime”.

In the city of Banias, in what was seen as another attempt to mollify protesters, the chief of the security police was sacked, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Security forces sealed off Banias last week after demonstrations against Assad and an attack by irregular forces loyal to him on men guarding a Sunni mosque.

Hours before Tuesday`s cabinet meeting, the Interior Ministry had called on citizens to refrain from protesting at all. Leftist opposition figure Mahmoud Issa was arrested a day later in Homs.

Bureau Report