Feb
19

Syrian security forces increase pressure on Damascus protesters

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Police spread through Syrian capital to prevent further protests against Bashar al-Assad in wake of demonstrator’s funeral

Police and militia patrols have fanned out in Damascus to prevent a repeat of protests against President Bashar al-Assad that threaten his grip on on the Syrian capital, opposition activists said.

On Saturday, thousands of Syrians demonstrated in the heart of the capital in one of the biggest anti-government rallies there since the nationwide uprising almost a year ago. On Sunday, the body of Samer al-Khatib, a young protester who was killed when security forces opened fire on the protest, was buried in the city’s Mezze district district.

Security forces maintained a heavy presence to prevent the funeral from turning into an anti-Assad demonstration, according to opposition activists contacted by Reuters.

Fifteen pickup trucks carrying security police and armed pro-Assad militiamen, known as shabbiha, surrounded the funeral as Khatib was buried quietly, they said.

Police cars and militia jeeps patrolled Mezze while secret police agents spread out on foot, stopping men at random and checking their identification cards, they said.

“Walking in Mezze now carries the risk of arrest. The area is quiet and even the popular food shops in Sheikh Saad are empty,” activist Moaz al-Shami said, referring to a main street.

Saturday’s shooting by security forces took place as a Chinese envoy, foreign minister Zhai Jun met Assad appealed to all sides to end the violence. Zhai also expressed Beijing’s support for Assad’s plan to hold a referendum and multi-party elections within four months – a move the west and some in Syria’s fragmented opposition movement have dismissed as a sham.

China has emerged as a leading player in multiple international efforts to end the bloodshed in Syria and remains one of Assad’s main supporters.

“China believes, as many others do, there is still hope the Syria crisis can be resolved through peaceful dialogue between the opposition and the government, contrary to some western countries’ argument that time is running out for talks in Syria,” the Xinhua commentary said.

Western countries were “driven less by their self-proclaimed ‘lofty goal’ of liberalising the Syrian people than by geopolitical considerations,” Xinhua said.

Britain’s foreign minister, William Hague, told the BBC he was concerned “that Syria is going to slide into a civil war and that our powers to do something about it are very constrained because, as everyone has seen, we have not been able to pass a resolution at the UN security council because of Russian and Chinese opposition.”

Syria’s government opposition organisation, Local Coordination Committees (LCC), said security forces killed 14 people in Damascus and other parts of the country on Saturday, including five in the opposition stronghold of Homs. None of the figures could be verified independently.

Government forces bombarded Homs again on Sunday. The western city, strategically situated on the road between Damascus and commercial hub Aleppo, has been under siege for more than two weeks and a humanitarian crisis is unfolding as food and medical supplies to treat the wounded are running short.

Jordan announced it had set up a refugee camp near its northern border with Syria, in preparation for what many fear may be a mass exodus of Syrians fleeing violence in their homeland.

Sami Halaseh of the public works ministry says the area, located about 12 miles south of the border, is expected to be ready in two weeks.

The camp will be monitored by a round-the-clock police guard. It is the first camp to be set up for Syrians in Jordan since the uprising began.

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