Damascus protesters seized, Deraa chants ‘freedom’


DAMASCUS/DERAA – Syrian security men seized dozens of people who staged a brief pro-democracy march in Damascus on Friday, as protests that have flared in the south inspired support in the capital.
But a day after President Bashar al-Assad, scion of half a century of Baathist rule, offered to consider granting political freedoms, thousands marched freely in the southern city of Deraa behind the coffins of protesters gunned down by Assad’s forces.
“Freedom is ringing out!” chanted mourners for some of at least 37 people killed on Wednesday, when security agents broke up a pro-democracy encampment at a mosque in Deraa. Despite a continued heavy security presence in Deraa, close to the Jordanian border, thousands of protesters were arriving in the city from nearby villages, offering support to a movement which has tried to emulate Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
Unrest in Deraa came to a head this week after police detained more than a dozen schoolchildren for writing graffiti against the government. In Damascus, a couple of protests by a few dozen people shouting slogans were broken up last week. On Friday, some 200 people shouted chants in support of the people in the south — “We sacrifice our blood, our soul, for you Deraa!” — before plainclothes police and other security officers moved in to arrest them.
Several hundred people yelled pro-government slogans nearby, close to Damascus’s Old City. In Deraa, before the Friday midday prayers which are the high point of social interaction in much of the Arab world, a procession of cars coursed through the streets honking horns and raising pictures of the president.
There were also pro-Assad congregations in other parts of the city. Minarets in Deraa echoed throughout the morning with the calls of imams to the faithful to attend funerals of some of the civilians killed, most of them when security forces fired on demonstrators in the mainly Sunni Muslim city on Wednesday.
A Facebook page called Syrian Revolution called on people to gather on the “Friday of Dignity” after prayers, “in all mosques, in all provinces, in the biggest squares”. But similar calls over the past two months have generated little that could threaten the grip of Assad, who succeeded his late father, Hafez al-Assad, 11 years ago at the head of a powerful elite based on their Alawite religious minority.
Bashar al-Assad promised on Thursday to look into granting Syrians greater freedoms in an attempt to defuse the outbreak of popular demands for political freedoms and an end to corruption. Despite Assad’s gesture, which included a pledge to look into ending emergency law and an offer of large public pay rises, thousands of Syrians later turned out at the Omari mosque in Deraa on Thursday to chant “freedom, revolution”.
Syrian security forces pulled out on Thursday from the mosque where several people were killed. People later converged on the mosque to celebrate its “liberation”, setting off fireworks and honking car horns. As an aide was announcing Assad would study a possible end to 48 years of emergency rule, a human rights group said a leading pro-democracy activist, Mazen Darwish, had been arrested.
On Jan 31, Assad had said there was no chance political upheavals then shaking Tunisia and Egypt would spread to Syria.