Troops sent to Deraa as city remains tense after protests

Tue, Mar 22, 2011, 00:00

SYRIA:DAMASCUS – FOLLOWING A weekend of violence that saw the deaths of up to seven people at the hands of police, demonstrations continued in Syria yesterday, with the government sending troops to the restless southern city of Deraa.

Protests in the city were sparked by the arrest of 15 children for writing anti-government slogans on public property. Increased intimidation by the feared security apparatus following the arrests drove people on to the streets on Friday.

Separately, demonstrations here in Damascus last week calling for the release of political prisoners saw 32 human rights protesters arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison. Several of the women taken into custody are on hunger strike, news agencies are reporting.

The funeral of a 23-year-old man killed during protests in Deraa on Sunday passed off without incident yesterday. However, the situation in the city remains tense.

On Sunday protesters attacked the regional headquarters of the ruling Baath party but came under fire from police. Tear gas was also used to disperse thousands of demonstrators who set alight a city courthouse.

Ammar Qarabi, director of the National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria, said there are demonstrations taking place all over the country. “I am sure that change has started and no one can stop it, now there are a lot of demonstrations in Aleppo, Der Al-Zour, Banias, Homs and Hama but as there is no private media in these areas, the media cannot cover them.”

Non-authorised gatherings and demonstrations are banned in Syria through a 1963 emergency law which forbids criticism of the state and the “weakening of national sentiment”. The country has been ruled by the Baath party for almost 50 years with no political opposition tolerated.

Yesterday the al- Jazeera television network reported that troops were being deployed across several Syrian cities. However, given the media blackout, this is difficult to confirm.

In the wake of Friday’s killings the government has been attempting to reel in growing discontent by ordering an investigation into the deaths in Deraa, and last Sunday a delegation including the deputy foreign minister visited the families of those killed. On Saturday state media announced that compulsory military service is to be reduced by three months.

These moves, instigated by the demonstrations, are being viewed as an appeasement of an increasingly exasperated population fighting rising prices and bureaucracy.

Regarded as one of the most repressive countries in the region, the Syrian government has been attempting to instigate a modernisation of the economy. Bashar Al-Assad, the country’s tech-savvy president, is popular among the country’s youth. However, intimidation by the security services and endemic corruption in both the public and private business spheres have made life difficult for Syrians.

Kurds marking the Kurdish new year in Syria this week could spark further protests, with killings and arrests recorded at similar celebrations over the past number of years.