Syrian forces open fire to disperse protesters
BEIRUT SYRIAN security forces fired tear gas and live ammunition to disperse thousands rallying on Friday in Aleppo in what activists said was the largest protest yet in a city that has largely remained loyal to President Bashar al Assad during the country’s 15-month uprising.
The protest pointed to rising anti-regime sentiment in Syria’s largest city, particularly after a raid on dormitories at the city’s main university killed four students and forced the temporary closure of the state-run school earlier this month.
The May 3 raid at Aleppo University was an unusually violent incident for the northern city, a major economic hub, where business ties and the presence of significant populations of sectarian minorities have kept residents largely on the side of the regime, or at least unwilling to join the opposition.
On Thursday, some 15,000 students demonstrated outside the gates of Aleppo University in the presence of UN observers, before security forces broke up the protest.
Even bigger numbers took to the streets on Friday.
Aleppo-based activist Mohammad Saeed said it was the largest demonstration there since the start of the uprising.
He said more than 10,000 people protested in the Salaheddine and al Shaar districts alone and thousands protested in other areas of the city. “The number of protesters is increasing every day and today saw the biggest protests,” said Saeed, adding that several people were wounded when government forces tear gas and live ammunition to try and disperse the rally. The head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdul- Rahman, said the protest showed “it’s a real uprising happening in Aleppo these days.” Thousands of people across the country also staged anti-government rallies in solidarity with Aleppo.
Friday is the main day of protests across Syria and this week’s demonstrations were dubbed “The Heroes of Aleppo University” in solidarity with the students.
Opposition activists said security forces opened fire in several other locations including the Damascus suburbs and the central city of Hama to disperse protesters and that the regime shelled the town of Rastan, which has been under the control of rebels since January.
The violence comes as the head of UN observer team in Syria cautioned that unarmed force alone cannot stop the bloodshed without genuine talks between the two sides that have been locked in a violent conflict for more than a year.
Maj Gen Robert Mood, the Norwegian head of the 200- strong observer team, warned on Friday that no number of observers can achieve “a permanent end to the violence if the commitment to give dialogue a chance is not genuine from all internal and external actors.” He spoke at a news conference in the Syrian capital, Damascus.
International powers have pinned their hopes on a peace plan for Syria that special envoy Kofi Annan brokered in April. The plan paved the way for the UN observers, and it calls for a cease-fire and dialogue to stop 15 months of bloodshed.
The UN estimated in March that the violence in Syria has killed more than 9,000 people. Hundreds more have been killed since then as a revolt that began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful calls for reform has transformed into an armed insurgency.
Both sides have flouted the cease-fire, raising concerns that the peace plan is ineffective in a conflict where the violence is spinning out of control.