Syria clamps down hard in Damascus

2012-02-19 17:37

Damascus - Syrian security forces deployed heavily on Sunday in a tense Damascus neighbourhood where a mourner was shot dead in the largest anti-regime rally seen in the capital, blunting calls for a "day of defiance".

With protesters becoming more and more emboldened in Damascus following 11 months of revolt which has largely escaped the capital, President Bashar Assad's regime also came under pressure on Sunday from regional powers, with Egypt joining other Arab League countries in recalling its ambassador.

Although the security force deployment thwarted attempts by activists to stage new protests in Mazzeh neighbourhood, scene of a funeral on Saturday that turned into a huge anti-regime rally, business there came to a halt, activists said.

Mohammed Shami, a spokesperson for activists in Damascus province, said most shops were shut in Mazzeh as well as in the neighbourhoods of Barzeh, Qaboon, Kfar Sousa and Jubar.

Student demonstrations had been expected in Mazzeh but security forces were deployed around schools, Shami said.

"Security forces are heavily deployed throughout Mazzeh," he added.

Another activist, Abu Huzaifa from the Mazzeh Committee, said police forced the family of Samer al-Khatib, 34, who died after being shot in neck during the mass funeral on Saturday, to bury him in a small ceremony earlier than planned, in an apparent move to head off demonstrations.

In central Damascus, shops were opened as normal, witnesses said, while state television showed live footage from Mazzeh interviewing people who claimed life was proceeding normally.

Security tight

Deeb al-Dimashqi, a member of the Syrian Revolution Council based in the capital told AFP earlier that "huge demonstrations" were expected, adding however that Syrian forces had clamped tight security around the city.

"There is a large security presence," he said.

In a message to Damascus residents on their "Syrian Revolution 2011" Facebook page, activists said: "The blood of the martyrs exhorts you to disobedience," after more than 6 000 people were killed since protests against the regime of erupted in March, according to activists.

Regime forces meanwhile pounded the flashpoint central city of Homs for 15th straight day Sunday, killing at least four people, activists said, while official SANA news agency reported the murder of a prosecutor and a judge in northwestern Idlib province.

Security forces shot dead a woman when they stormed the town of Sukhna in the Homs province to track down wanted activists, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement.

It also said that a man was shot dead at a checkpoint in the northern province of Aleppo.

The Baba Amr neighbourhood of the defiant city of Homs also came under sporadic shelling by army forces on Sunday morning, the Observatory said, adding that there was heavy shooting in the area of Bab Sbaa.

And a "terrorist group" shot dead prosecutor Nidal Ghazal and judge Mohammed Ziyadeh and their driver in the northwestern province of Idlib on Sunday, Sana reported.

The agency said that another "terrorist group" killed on Saturday Jamal Bish, a member of the city council of Aleppo.

Funeral became protests

Saturday's funerals in Damascus were for four people, including two teenagers, killed the previous day when security forces fired on protesters in Mazzeh district which houses many government offices and embassies, according to human rights group and activists.

"The funerals in Mazzeh turned into protests - it was the closest major gathering to Omayyad Square" in the city centre, Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman told AFP.

Shami said that some 15 000 people had turned out despite snowfall.

He said the shootings during the funerals, in which many people were wounded, were followed by a "wave of searches and arrests" across the leafy, upscale residential district which is overlooked by the presidential palace.

Activists described demonstrations held on Friday in Damascus as "unprecedented", saying there were 49 in all.

Agnes Levallois, a Paris-based Middle East expert, said the demonstrations in Damascus indicated growing pressure on the government.

"We said from the onset that the day when huge demonstrations will spill out in Damascus and [Syria's second city] Aleppo, it will be the end of the regime," said Levallois.

In a further sign that international sanctions against Assad's regime are crippling the economy, leading Syrian businessman Faisal al-Qudsi told the BBC that foreign exchange reserves have tumbled from $22 billion to about $10 billion.

Read more on:    syria  |  syria conflict  |  uprisings

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