Syrians call for Assad’s death


Tens of thousands of Syrian protesters shouted for President Bashar Assad’s death yesterday in a dramatic escalation of their rage and frustration, defying bullets and rooftop snipers after more than a week of intensified military assaults on rebellious cities, activists and witnesses said.

Security forces killed at least 14 protesters, according to human rights groups.

The calls for Assad’s execution were a stark sign of how much the protest movement has changed since it erupted in March seeking minor reforms but making no calls for regime change. The protests grew dramatically over the five months that followed, driven in part by anger over the government’s bloody crackdown in which at least 1,700 civilians have been killed, rights groups say.

But with the regime shrugging off even the most blistering condemnation, the uprising has become a test of endurance as both sides draw on a deep well of energy and conviction. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged countries yesterday to stop buying Syrian oil and gas or selling the regime weapons, saying those who do so must “get on the right side of history.’’

In cities around Syria, protesters chanted, “The people want to execute the president!’’ during the now-familiar cycle of weekly demonstrations followed by a swift crackdown by the military, security forces and pro-government gunmen who operate on the regime’s behalf.

Security forces broke up protests quickly around Damascus, in the central city of Homs, and elsewhere, firing bullets and tear gas. Some areas saw only limited demonstrations because soldiers deployed heavily in restive areas.

In a significant show of defiance, some of the largest protests yesterday were on the outskirts of the central city of Hama and in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, where government forces seized control in major military offensives during the past week. That protesters still turned out was a signal that Assad’s forces cannot terrify protesters into staying home.

However, within Hama, protesters struggled to turn out in great numbers after soldiers clamped down in the streets, witnesses said. Snipers were stationed on rooftops, and troops surrounded mosques and set up checkpoints to head off any marches.

“There are security checkpoints every 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 phone, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Dozens of soldiers deployed in Hama’s Assi Square, which had been the main converging point for hundreds of thousands of protesters in previous weeks, the activist said.

In Homs, more than a 1,000 soldiers, security agents, and plainclothes policemen were deployed in the city’s main square.

At least 14 protesters were killed across the country: Five outside the capital, Damascus; one in Homs, and two in Hama; Four in the northern city Aleppo; one in Deir el-Zour; and one in eastern Idlib Province, according to activist groups. Military raids earlier in the day killed at least two people.

“Where are the prisoners, Bashar? Free the prisoners!’’ shouted protesters in the coastal city of Latakia, shown in amateur video posted by activists. Another video showed a crowd outside a mosque in the southern city of Daraa hit by clouds of tear gas after they chanted for the downfall of the regime.

The Associated Press could not verify the videos. 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 fomenting unrest.

A flurry of foreign diplomats have rolled through Damascus urging Assad to end a campaign of killing.

“We believe that President Assad’s opportunity to lead the transition has passed,’’ Jay Carney, spokesman for President Obama, told reporters.