- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2005

From combined dispatches

DAMASCUS, Syria — About 100 activists trying to stage a sit-in demonstration demanding greater freedoms were chased from a downtown square yesterday by hundreds of pro-government demonstrators carrying large pictures of the Syrian president, a human rights committee said.

Some of the activists were also beaten, according to the newly formed National Coordination Committee for Basic Freedom and Human Rights.

The committee, which was established earlier this year, denounced the actions as “repressive and uncivilized behavior which threatens civil peace.”

Syria’s official news agency, SANA, said the pro-government university students ran into “a group of citizens who were staging a sit-in expressing some demands.” It said police intervened to “prevent any clashes.”

The incident came a day after hundreds of thousands of Shi’ite Muslims in Lebanon marched in support of President Bashar Assad in the face of intense international pressure on him to withdraw Syria’s military and intelligence units from Lebanon.

Yesterday’s sit-in was organized to mark the 42nd anniversary of the declaration of emergency laws in Syria and also coincided with the first anniversary of Kurdish protests in northeastern Syria, in which 25 persons were killed and more than 100 injured.

Syria’s tiny opposition has become increasingly vocal since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut — an attack that galvanized international and Lebanese opposition to Syria’s 29-year occupation of its neighbor.

Since then, Syria’s opposition has publicly backed calls for Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon.

On the diplomatic front, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak yesterday backed a U.N. effort to negotiate a timetable for Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon.

Mr. Mubarak met with U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen at the Egyptian seaside resort Sharm el Sheik, where they discussed the withdrawal of Syrian troops and intelligence operatives from Lebanon.

“Following the meeting, Roed-Larsen stated that the president and himself saw eye to eye on the issues” and would stay in contact, U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe said in New York.

Mr. Roed-Larsen is expected to meet today with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman, travel to Beirut tomorrow and then to Damascus to discuss the troop withdrawal with the Syrians.

Syria has withdrawn some of its troops and intelligence agents and redeployed many of its estimated 14,000 troops in Lebanon closer to its border.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that Security Council Resolution 1559 requires total withdrawal. The resolution also calls for Syrian intelligence agents to leave Lebanon.

In Damascus yesterday, at least 500 pro-government demonstrators arrived shortly after the opposition activists began their sit-in.

Waving Syrian flags and pictures of Mr. Assad, the demonstrators shouted, “We sacrifice our souls and blood for you, oh Bashar.”

They overtook the activists, threatening them with sticks and forcing them to move to a nearby square, where they were also overwhelmed and chased away.

The sit-in “was met with a flood of security agents and surrounded by marchers armed with sticks and clubs in a provocative attempt … aimed at preventing the opposition from peacefully expressing its calls for democracy, human rights and respect of basic liberties,” the human rights group said.

The rights group called on the government to abolish emergency laws and release all political prisoners as well as “unleash general, basic freedoms without any slowdown.”

It also demanded the government find “a democratic and just solution for the Kurdish question and return citizenship to the Kurdish citizens who were stripped of it.”

Hassan Abdul Azeem, an official with the committee, told reporters at his office in downtown Damascus that the Syrian government “still insists on its totalitarian course and on its continuous attempts to cancel and suppress the other’s opinion.”

Staff writer Betsy Pisik contributed to this report in New York.

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