Syria marks uprising anniversary


Flag-waving crowds took to the streets of Syrian cities today in an orchestrated show of loyalty to president Bashar al-Assad on the first anniversary of an increasingly bloody revolt against his rule.

Official media announced government forces had cleared "armed terrorists" from the northwestern city of Idlib, suggesting the army was gaining ground in the uprising which has cost at least 8,000 lives and crippled the Syrian economy.

Opposition activists said soldiers had fired on people trying to stage anti-regime protests in various locations and reported evidence of fresh atrocities, including the discovery of 23 bodies, some with signs of torture, near Idlib.

State television showed thousands of people in central Damascus, waving portraits of Dr Assad and flags of Syria, Russia and China. Moscow and Beijing have not joined Western nations in backing an Arab League plan for Dr Assad to step aside.

"We sacrifice our blood and souls to you, Bashar," the crowds chanted as three helicopters flew past in a military salute.

Amid dire warnings that Syria is sinking into a protracted civil war, the UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan has demanded further clarification from Damascus over its response to proposals aimed at ending the violence.

He is due to report back to a divided UN Security Council tomorrow. Russia and China remain behind a defiant Dr Assad while exasperated Western powers push for regime change.

The United Nations estimates that more than 8,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in the fighting. Some 230,000 Syrians have been displaced from their homes, including 30,000 who have fled abroad, raising the prospect of a refugee crisis.

Turkey said 1,000 refugees had crossed into Turkey from Syria in the last 24 hours, bringing the total of registered Syrian refugees in Turkey to some 14,000.

An official said: "We expect this to continue as long as the operation goes on in Idlib."

Britain's Guardian newspaper has published what it believes to be genuine emails sent and received by Dr Assad and his wife between June and February.

The emails appeared to show that Dr Assad had taken advice from Iran on countering the uprising, that he had branded some of his promised reforms as "rubbish", and that his wife had placed orders for expensive overseas goods as the violence escalated.

As the anniversary of the uprising approached, the Syrian army appeared to step up its offensive against rebel strongholds, regaining Homs and sending tanks into the southern town of Deraa, the cradle of the rebellion.

They also pounded Idlib with artillery in recent days before sending in troops to regain control of the city, which had been a bastion for the Free Syria Army - a disparate collection of lightly armed militants led by deserters.

"Security and peace of mind returned to the city of Idlib after authorities cleared its neighbourhoods of armed terrorist groups which had terrorised citizens," the state news agency Sana reported today.

Syrian state television said there would be a "Global March for Syria" to honour those killed by the rebels and video footage showed crowds gathering in a central Damascus square.

The government has blamed foreign powers and "terrorists" for the chaos and say 2,000 soldiers have died in the conflict.

Dr Assad confidently predicted at the start of 2011 that Syria was immune from the "Arab Spring", in which the autocratic leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen were swept from power.

But on March 15th, a few dozen protesters braved the streets of Damascus to call for more freedom. Days later riots broke out in Deraa, on the border with Jordan, to protest against the torture of local boys caught writing anti-government graffiti.

Diplomats say the fighting is developing along sectarian lines. The Sunni Muslim majority, who make up 75 per cent of the population of 23 million, is at odds with Dr Assad's Alawite sect, which represents 10 per cent but controls the levers of power.

Other minorities, such as the Christians, are sticking with Dr Assad for fear of reprisals should he be ousted, analysts say.

"The strategy of the regime is civil war, after it failed to silence the people. So it's trying to protect its future by moving toward dividing the country," said Najati Tayyara, a veteran dissident and Sunni liberal who has fled to Jordan.

Former UN chief Mr Annan presented Dr Assad with a five-point plan to end the fighting at weekend talks.

Syria has said it has given a "positive" response to the approach. However, a senior Western diplomat in the region told Reuters that Damascus had effectively rejected Mr Annan's ideas.