POSTED: 04:55 a.m. HST, Aug 12, 2011
BEIRUT >> Syrian soldiers opened fire today on tens of thousands of protesters who flooded the streets shouting for the ouster — and even the execution — of President Bashar Assad as his embattled regime tries to crush a 5-month-old uprising despite broad international condemnation.
The calls for Assad's death were a dramatic escalation of the opposition movement's rage and frustration following a deadly week of military assaults on rebellious cities.
At least seven protesters were killed: two outside the capital, Damascus, one in the central city of Homs and another in Hama, two in the major northern city Aleppo and one in Deir el-Zour in the east, according to activists. Military raids earlier in the day killed at least two people.
Friday has become the main day for demonstrations in Syria, despite the near-certainty of a government crackdown with bullets and tear gas. The latest rallies were largest in Homs and the outskirts of Hama in central Syria, Deir el-Zour in the east, Idlib province near the Turkish border and Latakia in the north.
The protests in Deir el-Zour and outside Hama were significant because government forces took control of both areas this week during deadly military assaults. The fact that protesters still turned out was a strong sign of defiance and the latest signal that Assad's forces cannot terrify them into staying home.
Syrian troops opened fire on thousands in Deir el-Zour, according to two main activist groups.
Protesters struggled to turn out in great numbers inside Hama, however, due to the widespread deployment of soldiers and snipers stationed on rooftops, witnesses said. Syrian troops surrounded mosques and set up checkpoints to head off any protests.
"There are security checkpoints every 200 meters (655 feet), they have lists and they're searching people ... the mosques are surrounded by soldiers," a Hama-based activist told The Associated Press by telephone, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
He said tens of soldiers were stationed in the Assi square in Hama, which had been the main converging point for hundreds of thousands of protesters in recent weeks.
In Homs and Idlib, where tens of thousands turned out, protesters shouted: "The people want the execution of the president!" The chant was the latest sign of how much the protest movement has grown since it erupted in March, seeking minor reforms and democratic change.
Syria has banned most foreign media and restricted local coverage, making it impossible to get independent confirmation of the events on the ground. The government has justified its crackdown by saying it was dealing with terrorist gangs and criminals who were fomenting unrest.
The military offensive reflects Assad's determination to crush the uprising against his rule despite mounting international condemnation, including U.S. and European sanctions.
In Washington, presidential spokesman Jay Carney stopped just short of calling for Assad's ouster, saying that Syria "would be a much better place without him."
"We believe that President Assad's opportunity to lead the transition has passed," Carney told reporters traveling on Air Force One with President Barack Obama to Michigan.
Today, Syrian activists said troops and tanks stormed the town of Khan Sheikhon in the northern province of Idlib amid heavy gunfire that killed one woman.
The raid is part of a military operation in the restive area near the Turkish border in the past few days. Intense protests in the region triggered a harsh government response in June and forced thousands of Syrians to flee across the border to Turkey.
Many of those who fled are still living in several refugee camps across the border.
A flurry of foreign diplomats have rolled through Damascus urging Assad to end a campaign of killing that rights groups say has left about 1,700 civilians dead since mid-March.
But Assad has brushed off the reproach. In a continuing nationwide campaign of arrests, Syrian activists said security forces detained Abdul-Karim Rihawi, the Damascus-based head of the Syrian Human Rights League. A longtime rights activist, Rihawi had been tracking government violations and documenting deaths in Syria.
He was picked up from a cafe in central Damascus along with a journalist who had been interviewing him, according to rights activist Ammar Qurabi.
France condemned the arrest and called for his immediate release.
"By its brutal and symbolic character, the arrest of Abdul-Karim Rihawi constitutes a new unacceptable decision by the authorities of Damascus," a French Foreign Ministry statement said.
The statement said the arrest goes against the expectations of the international community and said the violent repression and political arrests must cease in Syria.
The Syrian uprising was inspired by the revolts and calls for reform sweeping the Arab world, and activists and rights groups say most of those killed have been unarmed civilians. An aggressive new military offensive that began with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at the start of August has killed several hundred people in just one week.