More violence in Syria as dissent rises

Authorities however freed 260 political detainees to appease protesters.

Last Updated: Mar 27, 2011, 08:39 AM IST

Damascus: More deadly violence erupted in Syria on Saturday as snipers killed two people and demonstrators torched an office of the ruling Baath party of President Bashar al-Assad.

The violence came on day 12 of dissent in a country renowned for its iron grip on security.

Authorities however freed 260 political detainees in a bid to appease increasingly angry protesters, who have put Assad under unprecedented domestic pressure since he came to power in 2000.

Officials have confirmed 27 killed in clashes between demonstrators and security forces, 20 of them protesters, in cities including Homs, Sanamen, Daraa and Latakia since the rallies began on March 15.

Activists have put the death toll at more than 126, with upwards of 100 killed on Wednesday alone in a bloody crackdown on protests in Daraa, the southern tribal town that has become the symbol of the protests.

In Latakia, a port city 350 kilometres (210 miles) northwest of Damascus, two people were killed by sniper fire and two more were wounded, a Syrian official said.

In Tafas, south of the capital, angry residents torched a police station and the local headquarters of the Baath party, which has ruled Syria single-handedly for nearly half a century.

In nearby Daraa, at the Jordanian border, some 300 bare-chested young men climbed on the rubble of a statue of the late president Hafez al-Assad, Bashar`s father, shouting anti-regime slogans, witnesses said.

Daraa demonstrators on Friday tore down the statue in a brazen move, and burned the home of the governor, who was dismissed after demonstrations against him earlier this month.

The Assad government has announced a string of reforms to appease demonstrators, including the possibility of ending emergency law in place since 1963.

But protesters have vowed to keep taking to the streets until their demands for more "freedom" are met. The authorities have accused "armed gangs" of pushing peaceful rallies into violence.

Rights groups on Saturday said the political detainees were freed from the notorious Saydnaya prison, north of Damascus, in the biggest concession by the state yet.

"Syrian authorities have freed 260 detainees from Saydnaya prison, mainly Islamists but also including 14 Kurds, in a move that comes as part of the promises authorities made recently to boost freedom in Syria," Abdul Karim Rihawi, head of the Syrian League for the Defence of Human Rights, said.

A high-ranking official confirmed the news but would not give a number.

Despite a call on Facebook group The Syrian Revolution 2011, which has emerged as the motor of the protest movement, for massive protests on Saturday, the only rallies in Damascus were in support of Assad.

Men, women and children were on the city`s streets on foot and in cars, blaring horns and chanting support for the ruling regime as they waved Syrian flags and pictures of both Hafez and Bashar al-Assad.

Authorities have clamped down on anti-regime protests in the capital, where Assad supporters have taken to the streets nightly to voice their support for the 45-year-old President.

Reporters have witnessed activists being dragged away by plain-clothes security men after two separate protests at the landmark Omayyed mosque over the past week.

The southern governorate of Daraa has emerged as the hub of the protests and has sustained the most casualties as residents continue to come out and demonstrate.

But fears are rising that the protests could slide into sectarian-based dissent.

Access to Daraa has been restricted, and a team of reporters was escorted out of the town by security forces on Friday.

The crackdown in Syria has drawn harsh rebukes from the United Nations, the European Union and the United States.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights warned on Saturday that the violent crackdown risked plunging the country into a "downward spiral" of violence.

Bureau Report