Syria removes police chief of restive city

The chief of security police in the Syrian city of Banias has been dismissed.

Last Updated: Apr 20, 2011, 21:19 PM IST

Amman: The chief of security police in the Syrian city of Banias has been dismissed, a rights group said on Wednesday, after five civilians were killed in a crackdown against pro-democracy protests there last week.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing sources in Damascus, named the officer as Amjad Abbas. Security forces had sealed off the city last weekend after demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad and an attack by irregular forces loyal to Assad on people guarding a Sunni mosque.

Inspired by uprisings across the Arab world, demonstrators have taken to the streets for more than a month demanding greater freedoms, undaunted by a security crackdown.

Rights groups, which say more than 200 have been killed since the unrest started a month ago, have called for independent investigations into the actions of security forces.

The latest move seemed another attempt to mollify protesters, who rejected appeals by authorities to stop demonstrating and ignored a concession by the government which approved legislation on Tuesday to end the state of emergency in force for the last 48 years.

The Observatory said Banias residents had identified Abbas, the fired officer, as one of the security officers seen beating a v.
illager in the nearby town of Baida, according to a video.

Along with the bill on emergency law, the newly appointed cabinet also approved legislation that requires Syrians to seek permission from the state before they demonstrate.

DEFIANT PROTESTS

Hours earlier, the Interior Ministry had called on citizens to refrain from protesting at all. Activists said the ministry statement and the fact that authorities on Tuesday night arrested a leftist opposition figure suggested the government`s move to lift emergency law will not halt repression.

Defiant protests continued overnight, including in the Damascus suburb of Zabadani where protesters called for freedom and for the "downfall of the regime," the rallying cry of uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

There were also sit-ins in Jabla on the coast, a women`s rally in Barzeh in Damascus, and a candlelight procession in Tel near the capital overnight.

In Homs, soldiers and irregular forces loyal to Assad dressed in black patrolled the route between two central squares, witnesses said. Shops stayed closed in protest over 20 pro-democracy protesters shot dead by security forces in the city since Monday, they said.

In Syria`s second city, Aleppo, Assad`s irregular forces broke up a small demonstration at the city`s university, beating several students and arresting 37, a rights activist said.

The State Department said the new law requiring permits to hold demonstrations made it unclear if the end of emergency rule would make for a less restrictive government.

A semi-official newspaper quoted an official source saying Assad would issue the decrees confirming the government decisions, which also include the dissolving of supreme state security court, on Wednesday.

The official added, contrary to statements last month, that there would be no new anti-terrorism legislation to replace emergency laws.

"Articles specific to terrorism crimes are already provided for in the Syrian general law on punishment."

Prominent leftist Mahmoud Issa was taken from his house in Homs around midnight by members of Syria`s political security division, rights campaigner said.

Civic figures in Homs, a central city known for its intellectuals and artists, signed a declaration calling on the army "not to spill the blood of honorable Syrians" and denying official allegations that Salafist groups were operating there.

"THERE MUST BE NO MORE SLAUGHTER"

In a sign of resistance to protesters` demands for reforms, the Interior Ministry on Monday night described the unrest as an insurrection by "armed groups belonging to Salafist organisations" trying to terrorize the population.

Salafism is a strict form of Sunni Islam that many Arab governments equate with militant groups like al Qaeda. Assad and most of his inner circle are from Syria`s minority Alawite community, who adhere to an offshoot of Shi`ite Islam.

Analysts said authorities are keen to prevent protesters gaining a visible focal point like Egypt`s Tahrir square.

"There must be no more slaughter. Syria`s president must take firm action now to stop the bloody crackdown by his security forces and ensure that those responsible for it are held to account," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International`s director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Emergency rule, in place since the Baath Party seized power in a 1963 coup, gave security organs blanket power to stifle dissent through a ban on gatherings of over five people, arbitrary arrest and closed trials, lawyers say.

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 Islamist movement Hamas and Lebanon`s Hezbollah but seeks peace with Israel. Assad was largely rehabilitated in the West after years in isolation after the 2005 assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri.

Bureau Report