19 Mar 2011

Syrian security forces crush protests

3:15 pm on 19 March 2011

Syrian security forces are believed to have killed three protesters in the southern city of Deraa.

If true, it's the most violent response yet to protests against the country's ruling elite since revolts swept through the Arab world.

The protesters were taking part in a peaceful demonstration demanding political freedoms and an end to corruption in Syria, which has been ruled under emergency laws by President Bashar al-Assad's Baath Party for nearly half a century.

Citing eyewitness accounts, Reuters reports that 3000 to 4000 people leaving a mosque after midday prayers chanted "God, Syria, Freedom" and slogans accusing the president's family of corruption.

Security forces fired water cannon at them, and then opened fire with live ammunition. Protesters threw stones in response and set fire to a car and a police kiosk, one witness says.

The three people believed killed have been named as Hussam Abdel Wali Ayyash, Akram Jawabreh and Ayhem al-Hariri.

After two or three hours of clashes, by nightfall the city was quieter, with a heavy security presence.

Demonstrations in other cities

Activists say smaller demonstrations took place in the central city of Homs and the coastal town of Banias, home to one of Syria's two oil refineries.

In the capital, Damascus, a crowd briefly chanted slogans for freedom inside the Umayyad Mosque before security forces closed in.

Reuters reports that the Syrian authorities have a history of crushing dissent. In 1982 Mr Assad's father sent troops to put down an rebellion in the city of Hama, killing thousands.

Citing economic liberalisation and a hard line against Israel, Syria's rulers have indicated they believe they are immune from the kinds of uprising that have toppled entrenched leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.

This week's small non-violent protests have challenged their authority for the first time in years.