Middle East

Syrian opposition plans unity demonstrations to quell sectarian fears

BEIRUT: Syrian opposition groups are planning to stage protests Friday under the banner “Friday day of National Unity” in response to reports of violent sectarian clashes in the central city of Homs this week.

Residents in the besieged city described a calm over the city Thursday night following two days of heavy gunfire after Syrian forces continued a clampdown on the scene of violent sectarian clashes over the weekend that left more than 30 people dead.

Fierce fighting rocked the city last weekend in clashes between Christians, Sunni Muslims and the minority Alawite communities.

Syria’s third-largest city, Homs has spearheaded demonstrations against the Syrian President Bashar Assad since protests erupted on March 15.

“We haven’t been able to leave the house in two days,” said one woman from the upper residential area of Baba Amr quarter, adding that she planned to take to the streets with her young son the following day in protest against what she said was sectarian violence choreographed by pro-Assad supporters from outside the city.

Earlier in the day she reported heavy gunfire in the area.

“It’s been a disaster here. The shooting has just gone on and on. We can’t even go out to see what’s happening,” the woman said.

She said roving groups of young unarmed men were stopping traffic leading to the center of the city while elsewhere, residents reported security forces had entered homes, making multiple arrests.

“The people who are fighting are not even from here,” she said.

“Even people we know from the Alawi area said they do not recognize the people coming in to the city.”

Two people were reported killed as firing continued in the Al-Khalidiyeh, Baba Amr and Al-Nazhine quarters, according to human rights groups Thursday.

Rami Abdel Rahman, of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP “shots were heard in Homs from dawn. Most streets were deserted because of the military operations. Tanks were seen around the fortress and entrances to many neighborhoods were closed.”

“The army has erected barricades in all the streets, communications have been cut in most neighborhoods and the humanitarian situation is deplorable.”

Activists say pro-regime gunmen have killed at least 22 people in Homs since Monday, including seven mourners at a funeral.

Activists working under the umbrella organization the Local Coordinating Committees released a statement Thursday denouncing what they say was an attempt by the Syrian state to sew division among the communities.

“In response to the regime’s attempts to create division between the sects and play on the sectarian game … we have decided to name next Friday as ‘Friday of national unity’ in order to clarify our position and not be dragged in to the regime’s attempts to divert the revolution from its path and our demands to topple the regime,” the statement read.In Damascus, meanwhile, a wave of arrests was made in three quarters, with “searches by loyalist militants very violent,” the Observatory said.

And in the southern town of Sueida, security forces had surrounded the local offices of a union, where some 70 lawyers and militants were holed up, rights lawyer Cyrine Khoury told AFP in Nicosia.

The Syrian state meanwhile responded to what it says are continued fabricated and biased international media reports of protests and heavy-handed tactics by the state, announcing plans to sue Qatar-based satellite television network Al-Jazeera.

The Syrian Arab News Agency reported tens of citizens gathered in front of the Justice Ministry to file complaints that would form part of a lawsuit against the satellite channel for its “fabrications and incitement against Syria, which resulted in the martyrdom of civilians and army members.”

Lawyer Ammar Bilal, who is coordinating legal efforts, told The Daily Star he expected thousands of people to register a complaint, adding that he also plans to take on France 24 and BBC Arabic for “inciting the killing of large numbers of citizens through reporting misleading information.”

“I am speaking not just as a lawyer but as a Syrian,” he said, but did not specify whether he intended the case to proceed as a class action civil case or criminal case, or in which jurisdiction.

Last Friday, over 1 million people turned out across Syria – mainly in the cities of Hama and Deir al-Zor – to protest against the Assad government and to demand the release of hundreds of detainees seized at earlier pro-democracy rallies.

Human rights activists said at least 28 civilians were killed, including 16 in Damascus and a child, when security forces opened fire to quell those protests. 

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 22, 2011, on page 1.

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