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Syrian Forces Clamp Down on Protesters in Restive Areas

President Bashar al-Assad
The Syrian uprising drew initial pledges of reform from President Bashar al-Assad, who lifted an emergency law in place since 1963 and appointed a new government. Photographer: Pankaj Nangia/Bloomberg

Syrian security forces clamped down on protesters across greater Damascus and flashpoint cities including Daraa, surrounding the areas and carrying out arrests, human rights groups said.

Authorities encircled the Damascus district of al-Muadamiya late yesterday and detained large numbers of pro-democracy protesters in the suburbs, including Barzeh and Douma, Mahmoud Merhi of the Arab Organization for Human Rights said in a phone interview from Syria today. Gunfire was heard in al-Muadamiya and about 100 people were arrested yesterday in the capital and its suburbs, said Ammar Qurabi, head of Syria’s National Organization for Human Rights. He said no deaths were reported. Security forces entered three villages outside Daraa, he said.

“The periphery of Daraa is surrounded, which is a clear indication that the crisis is still not over,” Merhi said. The government said May 5 that the army had begun a gradual retreat from the southern town, where anti-government protests began in mid-March, after completing its mission by detaining “terrorist elements and restoring security and calm.”

The Syrian uprising drew initial pledges of reform from President Bashar al-Assad, who lifted an emergency law in place since 1963 and appointed a new government. He hasn’t repeated the assurances in recent weeks as the security forces have stepped up their attacks, sending tanks into Daraa and other cities.

Deaths, Detentions

The continuing repression of protests in Syria and Yemen comes after revolts against longtime leaders in Egypt and Tunisia helped spread unrest throughout the Middle East.

Since the protests began in March, 757 demonstrators have been killed, Qurabi said today. As many as 10,000 may have been detained, he said. In Daraa, a curfew was in effect and several mosques have been barred from calling worshippers to prayers, while about 450 people have been arrested in the last three days in the coastal city of Banias, Qurabi said yesterday.

Bouthaina Shaaban, a political adviser to the president, met with a number of activists and intellectuals, Louay Hussein a writer and activist who met with Shaaban this week, said in a telephone interview from Damascus today.

‘Positive Discussion’

“It was a positive discussion,” he said. “We asked that the authorities begin releasing pro-democracy activists who have been detained, as a sign of goodwill. We asked that attacks on protesters stop, that people have the right to assemble in peace, that the media has access to sites where demonstrations are taking place, and after this we can engage in a political dialogue.”

The state “has a problem now in trying to transition toward a political solution,” Hussein said. “There needs to be a dialogue between activists, intellectuals, writers, lawyers and the government.”

Hassan Abdel-Azim, a spokesman for the opposition Democratic National Group who was arrested April 30 at his office in Damascus, was released late yesterday, Merhi said. Malak al-Shanawani, a feminist activist, was arrested today, Merhi said.

Surrender Urged

The Interior Ministry said 1,083 people “involved in riot acts” have turned themselves into authorities so far in response to a government announcement that those who surrender between May 2 and 15 will be exempt from prosecution and punishment, the official SANA news agency reported yesterday. It said they were released after they vowed not to repeat any act that harms the security of the state or its citizens.

The president’s British-born wife Asma, 35, may have gone to the U.K. with her three children amid the increasing violence in Syria, the London-based Daily Mail reported, citing a high-ranking person in Arab diplomatic circles. Asma al-Assad holds Syrian and British nationality. A spokesman for the U.K. Foreign Office declined to comment on the report, saying it doesn’t release information on travel by British individuals. A Home Office spokesman said it doesn’t comment on individual cases.

Most foreign journalists have been banned from Syria and the government has restricted media access to protest flashpoints and made it more difficult to get visas.

U.S., EU Sanctions

The U.S. has imposed sanctions on Syrian government officials because of the violent crackdown on protests. The European Union imposed an embargo on exports to Syria of arms and equipment as well as a visa ban and an asset freeze targeting 13 Syrian officials and their associates who have been identified as being responsible for repression against the nation’s civilian population.

Among the officials is the president’s brother, Maher al-Assad, who heads the army’s fourth division and the Republican Guard. Others on the list include Ali Mamlouk, who heads the General intelligence Service; Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar; Rami Makhlouf, a businessman who is a cousin of the president; and Rustom Ghazaleh, head of military intelligence.

“The solution to the crisis has to be political; there is no other solution,” Merhi said. “If there are no tangible steps on the ground there will be no end to the crisis.”

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