BEIRUT: Syrian forces fired on thousands of protesters Friday in Aleppo, killing a teenager, after a raid on dormitories at the city’s main university killed four students and enflamed tensions in a key bastion of support for the regime.
Elsewhere across the country, demonstrations were also met with gunfire. An Aleppo-based activist said the protests were the largest the city has seen since the start of the uprising against President Bashar Assad in March 2011. Aleppo is a major economic hub that has remained largely loyal to Assad over the course of the 14-month uprising.
“The people are incensed by what happened at the university,” said the activist, Mohammad Saeed. “Everyone wants to express solidarity with those students.” Saeed said security forces were out in full force, firing live ammunition to disperse protesters and arresting people randomly.
“With our blood, we sacrifice for you students!” people shouted.
Although Aleppo has largely been spared widespread violence, anti-government protests have been on the rise. In recent weeks, university students – many from rebellious areas such as the northern Idlib province – have been staging almost daily demonstrations.
“This is what prompted this extremely brutal attack by the government ... this is proof that the regime has started to worry about Aleppo rising up,” said Omar Idilbi, a member of the Syrian National Council opposition group.
During Friday’s protests, security forces killed a 16-year-old youth in the Salaheddine district of Aleppo and wounded around 30 other people, Saeed said. Scores also were arrested, he said. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground in Syria, confirmed that a teenager was gunned down.
Amateur videos showed a large number of people shouting “Allahu Akbar,” (“God is great”), as a protester climbed an electricity pole in Salaheddine to hang a flag that the opposition has adopted as its own – the national flag that dates to before the ruling Baath party took over. Other videos showed protesters shouting: “Death rather than humiliation!”
The violence has further highlighted doubts over a peace plan brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan nearly a month ago.
A spokesman for Annan said Friday the international envoy believes his peace plan for Syrian remains “on track” – a day after the Obama administration offered a far bleaker view, saying the plan might be doomed.
Meanwhile, the head of the Arab League, which has played a key role in mediating the Syria crisis, arrived in China Friday for discussions with top leaders, China’s Foreign Ministry said.
Nabil Elarabi arrived in the commercial hub of Shanghai and would travel to Beijing for “in-depth exchanges of views on the Syrian issue,” according to Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin.
China will also host Syrian opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun, who will meet with Foreign Ministry officials from Sunday, Liu said.
Beijing has traditionally backed Assad, but Liu said China had made contact with oppositions parties in the country.
China and Russia both drew international criticism earlier this year for vetoing two U.N. Security Council resolutions on the Syria crisis, but have since backed Annan’s six-point proposal to end the violence.
A U.N. team of up to 300 members is to monitor the truce. U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said about 40 U.N. observers are on the ground in Syria and that the force will grow to 65 by Sunday.
Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies, said the protests in Aleppo could mark a shift in the conflict.
“University students are Syria’s future. They are the youth of Syria’s middle class and elite families – the ones who are supposed to be sympathetic to the regime and leery of chaos and revolution,” Landis said. Universities, he said, “have become part of the boiling ocean of Syrian discontent.”
Aleppo University announced it was closing until final exams on May 13 following the bloody clash that began late Wednesday and lasted into early Thursday.
Thousands of Syrians also protested in the central provinces of Hama and Homs, in the southern province of Deraa and in suburbs of the capital Damascus. Activists reported at least 29 people killed across the country in what is becoming an all-too common toll as the country grinds toward civil war.
Also Friday, an Amnesty International researcher said she found evidence that Syrian troops are systematically burning down homes and executing detainees in apparent attempt to terrorize people and deter them from protesting.
The Syrian military made people “pay a very heavy price, gave a very clear message, including through very gratuitous types of violence” against people who pose no military threat, said London-based Donatella Rovera, who spent the last two weeks of April in Idlib province.
Rovera said in a phone interview that she collected testimony from relatives and witnesses detailing 30 extrajudicial killings, including several in the city of Idlib on April 16, four days after a U.N.-brokered cease-fire was to have taken hold.
One man told her that soldiers took his son from their home on that day. The man said he later looked out the window and saw soldiers shoot eight young men, their hands bound, as they faced a wall. The man told Rovera he did not know whether his son was in that group, but that his body was found later, along with others, in a nearby school.
In the town of Sarmin in Idlib province, a woman said soldiers seized her three adult sons from their home, rousing them from their sleep on March 23. The woman told Rovera that soldiers blocked her from following her sons outside.
“When I was able to go outside, after a couple of hours, I found my boys burning in the street,” Rovera quoted the woman as saying. “They had been piled on top of each other and had motorbikes piled on top of them and set on fire. I could not approach their bodies until evening because there was so much shooting.”
Rovera said she also saw evidence of the systematic burning of homes, with the use of accelerants, which she said suggests these are not spontaneous acts of individual soldiers.