- Associated Press - Thursday, March 24, 2011

DARAA, Syria (AP) — The Syrian government on Thursday pledged to consider lifting draconian restrictions on political freedom and civil liberties in an attempt to quell a week-long uprising that protesters sad has left dozens fatally shot by security forces.

The pledges appeared unlikely to satisfy demonstrators in the southern city of Daraa, where thousands have been calling for liberty, defying the crackdown as they take to the streets for funeral marches.

Presidential adviser Buthaina Shaaban blamed the unrest on outside agitators but told reporters in the capital, Damascus, that President Bashar Assad’s government would consider lifting a state of emergency, in place since 1963, that allows people to be arrested without warrants and imprisoned without trial.

She said the government was drafting a law that would allow political parties besides the ruling Baath party. It is also raising salaries for public servants and looking at better ways to fight corruption, she said.

Media access to the marches in Daraa was restricted, but an Associated Press reporter heard sporadic bursts of gunfire echoing through the city in the afternoon. Almost all shops were shuttered, the streets were virtually empty, and soldiers and anti-terrorism police stopped people at checkpoints and manned many intersections — the heaviest security presence since the unrest began.

An activist who is in contact with residents of Daraa told the Associated Press that massive crowds shouted, “Syria, freedom!” as they marched toward one of this agricultural hub’s main cemeteries.

Inspired by the wave of pro-democracy protests around the region, the uprising in Daraa and at least four nearby villages has become the biggest domestic challenge since the 1970s for the Syrian government, one of the most repressive in the Middle East. Security forces have responded with water cannon, tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition.

Abdul-Karim Rihawi, who heads the Syrian Human Rights League, said authorities had begun a campaign of detentions against activists, writers and bloggers in different parts of Syria.

Mr. Rihawi said the last to be detained was Mazen Darwish, a journalist who headed the independent Syrian Media Center. He said Mr. Darwish was summoned to a security office Wednesday noon and has not been seen since. Also detained were well-known writer Loay Hussein and blogger Ahmad Hdaithi.

“These arrests will only increase tension,” Mr. Rihawi said.

A statement posted Thursday on the Facebook page “The Syrian Revolution 2011” held Syrian authorities led by Mr. Assad responsible for the violence and called on the Syrian people to hold protests in all Syrian provinces on Friday, which it dubbed “Dignity Friday.”

A resident of Daraa who was reached by phone from Damascus said witnesses there reported seeing at least 34 people slain when police launched a relentless assault Wednesday on a neighborhood sheltering anti-government protesters, fatally shooting many in an operation that lasted nearly 24 hours.

He said at least 20 bodies were brought to Daraa National Hospital, and seven others taken to hospitals in neighboring areas. In the early evening, people from the nearby villages of Inkhil, Khirbet Ghazale and al-Harrah tried to march on Daraa, but security forces opened fire and hit them with rifle butts as they approached. The resident said seven more were killed in that shooting. Hundreds were wounded, he said.

The resident spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

“It was a very difficult, bloody day,” he said. “There is a state of undeclared curfew in Daraa. Whenever troops see four or five more people gathered, they open fire,” he said.

“Daraa today is like a ghost town; we are very scared,” he said. “Everything is closed, and the streets are empty. Everywhere you look there’s security.”

Troops were in total control of the area around the al-Omari mosque, where protesters had been holed up earlier and where most of Wednesday’s fighting occurred. Syrian officials escorted a small group of photographers to the mosque to show they were now in control.

There were no traces of fighting inside the mosque, except for a broken door to an office.

Elsewhere, the only evidence of fighting were rocks that littered the streets and the remains of tires that had been set on fire by protesters the day before.

Ahed Al Hendi, a Syrian dissident and Arabic program coordinator for the U.S.-based human rights organization cyberdissidents.org, said at least 45 people were killed on Wednesday.

The Washington-based Mr. Al Hendi said he is in daily contact with Syrians inside Daraa and provided a list with the names of the 45 killed. The report could not be independently confirmed.

Mr. Al Hendi said he expected more protests Friday.

Ms. Shaaban told reporters that 10 people were killed Wednesday in what she called an attempt to target Syria because it supports resistance against Israel.

“What is being targeted is Syria‘s position, Syria‘s security and ability to be a pillar of resistance against Zionism and U.S. schemes,” she said.

She said the Syrian government had no objection to peaceful protests and claimed that demonstrators in Daraa had attacked security forces.

“The demands of the people are being studied night and day, and Syria will witness important decisions that meet the ambitions of our people,” she said.

An official at the Daraa National Hospital told the Associated Press by telephone that the hospital received a large number of casualties Wednesday and was “overwhelmed” with wounded people. He declined to say how many people were dead or hurt, saying he was not authorized to give out numbers or talk to the press.

He said that the hospital had not received any new casualties since Wednesday night and that Daraa was “very quiet this morning.”

Videos posted by activists on YouTube and Twitter showed dead and wounded people lying on a street in Daraa as heavy gunfire crackled nearby and people shouted in panic.

One video showed a man with a bloodied face, apparently shot in the head, raising his index finger and saying, “There is no God but Allah” — the credo Muslims are required to say before they die.

The authenticity of the videos could not be independently confirmed.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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