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By Liz Sly from Beirut
This article was published in The Washington Post on 06/05/2011
Syrians swept onto the streets in towns and cities around the country after noontime prayers on Friday, sustaining their seven-week-old revolt against the government of President Bashar al-Assad despite a massive security crackdown in which hundreds have died and thousands have been arrested.
Anti-government protests in response to a call by activists to stage a “day of defiance” were reported across the country, including in towns that had been ringed by tanks in recent days in an attempt to deter citizens from taking to the streets.
Activists reported that security forces opened fire on protesters in the cities of Homs, Hama, Latakia and in the Damascus suburb of Tal, and there were unconfirmed reports of casualties. Human rights groups said at least 21 people were killed when troops fired on demonstrators. In Damascus, which has so far remained largely immune from the unrest, security forces detained the veteran opposition activist Riad Seif, a leading figure in the 2001 Damascus Spring democracy campaign, human rights groups said.
The Associated Press quoted his daughter Jumana as saying that Seif, 64, was rounded up with a crowd of protesters at a mosque in the central neighborhood of Midan and was taken away on a bus.
With tanks and security forces blocking major roads and sealing off neighborhoods in most towns, people have been unable to form large gatherings in central squares, said Wissam Tarif of the human rights monitoring group Insan. Instead, he said, they are staging smaller protests in individual neighborhoods.
“But what is amazing is that it is happening in so many towns and villages around the country,” he said.
Friday marked the seventh week since Syrians first took to the streets, initially in small numbers, to call for political reforms. But as the Assad government has responded to the unrest with escalating force, the protest movement has swelled, and it now seems clear that much of the country is in open revolt.
In many of the demonstrations around the country, crowds chanted, “The people want to topple the regime.” The slogan echoed the refrain of democracy protests elsewhere in the region and left little doubt that the demands of most demonstrators now go beyond mere reforms. Although the unrest has yet to reach significant proportions in the capital, Damascus, and Aleppo, Syria's most populous city, where the government’s supporters and the country’s business elite are concentrated, few other parts of the country have been untouched.
Demonstrations were also reported to be underway in the northern coastal cities of Latakia and Baniyas, the northeastern town of Qamishli, Abu Kamal on the Iraqi border in the east and in several small villages around the besieged southern town of Daraa, where the protest movement started.
The crackdown in Daraa seemed intended to serve as a lesson to other Syrian towns where the unrest was slower to build. Activists fear that hundreds of people were killed in the 12-day siege of the southern rural town, during which artillery was used to pound neighborhoods into submission and snipers were deployed on rooftops to shoot anyone who stepped outside.
But many Syrians say they have only been galvanized by the brutality in Daraa to call for the overthrow of the regime.
The northern town of Baniyas has also been ringed by tanks for more than a week, but citizens there have continued to stage demonstrations on a near daily basis, according to witnesses and amateur videos posted to Web sites. On Friday, electricity to the town was cut off after the al-Jazeera television network set up a link to transmit the protests there live.
But a student activist in Baniyas said demonstrators remained undeterred by the security presence, and that thousands were rallying in the town center to call for the Assad government to go.
“The tanks could come to crush us at any time,” he said. “But we are not afraid, and we will continue our protest.”
Verifying reports from Syria is difficult because foreign journalists have been denied visas to work in the country. Among the hundreds detained in the crackdown is a journalist for the al-Jazeera English network, Dorothy Parvaz, an Iranian Canadian who was taken into custody after she flew into the country from Qatar last week.