Thousands of Syrians shouting “We want freedom!” took to streets round the country yesterday, defying security forces who tried to clear them with gunfire, tear gas, and baton charges. At least three people were killed, bringing the toll from two weeks of protests to at least 75.
The wave of demonstrations has proved the most serious challenge yet to a four-decade ruling dynasty by the Assad family – one of the most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.
Activists had declared yesterday Martyrs’ Day and called for mass demonstrations to honour those killed since protests began in mid-March.
An activist in Douma, just outside capital Damascus, said he and hundreds of others came under attack by security forces as they left the Grand Mosque, chanting slogans for freedom.
He said the troops battered people with clubs and threw stones before firing tear gas and finally live ammunition.
“I saw three people dead and six wounded,” the activist said. The dead reportedly included a young girl.
The eyewitness added: “Douma’s streets are now totally empty except for security forces of whom some are in plainclothes.”
Other protests took place in the southern city of Daraa, which has become the focus of anti-Assad unrest. Eyewitnesses said up to 5,000 people marched in Daraa, shouting “We want freedom!” and “The blood of martyrs is not cheap!”
The account could not be independently confirmed due to media restrictions. But for the first time yesterday, the government acknowledged there were pro-reform gatherings in cities including Daraa and Latakia. It denied any violent clashes.
Earlier this week president Bashar al-Assad dashed expectations he would announce sweeping changes and instead announced he would form committees to look into civilian deaths and replacing decades-old emergency laws.
He also blamed the popular fury that has gripped Syria on a foreign conspiracy – enraging protesters who had expected him to announce reforms. Scores of plainclothes security agents were deployed in Damascus yesterday near the Umayyad mosque, where only last week, pro- and anti-government crowds clashed.
As people began leaving the mosque, a crowd of at least 300 carrying Syrian flags and pictures of Mr Assad started to clap and chant “Allah, Syria, Bashar!”
A Syrian in Lebanon who was in touch with eyewitnesses in the north-eastern city of Qamishli said thousands were protesting in solidarity with Daraa, chanting “peaceful, peaceful”.
In the central city of Homs, one witness said pro- and anti-Assad crowds fought with sticks. Dozens of people were wounded and many others arrested, the witness said.
“With my own eyes I saw them arrest one person and put him in the trunk of a car,” he said.
In the Mediterranean port city of Latakia, witnesses said security agents were asking people for IDs before they entered mosques.
Meanwhile, thousands of people filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square yesterday to call for Egypt’s military rulers to punish members of former president Hosni Mubarak’s administration.
The so-called “Friday for the Rescue of the Revolution” demonstration was organised by the Youth Revolution Coalition, a group founded by activists who started 25 January protests that led to Mr Mubarak’s ousting.
The protesters are calling for trials of remaining members of Mubarak’s regime, namely Fathi Serour, the former parliament speaker; Zakariya Azmi, head of the presidential palace; and Safwat al-Sherif, the former secretary general of the ruling party.