Syrian troops swoop amid Aleppo protests
Syrian troops swept into new villages in the northwest on Thursday as the second city Aleppo saw anti-regime protests and pro-democracy dissidents joined ranks at home and abroad, activists said.
Around 60 tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled into two villages in the countryside of Idlib, said Rami Abdel Rahman of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The operation was the latest in a campaign to quash dissent against the autocratic rule of President Bashar Al-Assad as pro-democracy protests gathered steam and opposition figures joined hands to press for reform.
Abdel Rahman said the troops were exiting from the village of Al-Bara when they split into two units, one heading towards the village of Kafr Nabl and the other to the village of Kansafra.
Early on Thursday the troops stormed the village of Al-Bara, a hamlet known for its Roman remains, Abdel Rahman said.
“Heavy gunfire rang out, probably to terrorize villagers to prevent them from leaving their homes,” he said, adding that the troops then left heading for the other villages.
After the operation villagers were seen fleeing Al-Bara and the nearby villages of Al-Rami, Mar-Ayan and Kafr Haya, “heading south and west,” Abdel Rahman said.
On Wednesday, 10 civilians were shot dead by troops when they stormed a cluster of villages in Idlib’s Jabal al-Zawiyah district as they pressed on with their crackdown against dissent, Abdel Rahman told AFP in Nicosia.
That operation came a day after tanks entered Al-Rami on the main road leading to Aleppo, activists said.
The crackdown comes in defiance of repeated global condemnation and warnings from Western powers to Syria to show restraint and despite new US sanctions against key regime pillars and Syria’s top ally Iran.
The Observatory says 1,353 civilians have been killed since mid-March in a crackdown by Assad’s regime on the reformist movement and that 343 security force personnel have also died. Thousands have been arrested.
Hundreds of pro-democracy protesters swept the streets of Syria’s second city Aleppo on Thursday, prompting security forces to use batons to disperse them, activists said.
“Hundreds of people took part in several neighborhoods of Aleppo,” said Abdel Karim Rihawi, president of the Syrian League for Human Rights.
“Security forces dispersed the protesters who were chanting slogans calling for freedom, using batons.”
Rihawi said that two people were reportedly injured and that some pro-regime supporters held counter-demonstrations.
A Facebook group that has been a motor of the uprising had urged Syrians to march on Thursday on Aleppo — the country’s commercial beacon — to demand Assad’s ouster, and to rally nationwide as well on Friday.
“The Aleppo Volcano. The people want the fall of the regime,” pro-democracy activists said in a message posted by the Syrian Revolution 2011 on its Facebook page.
“Revolutionaries, come to Aleppo and Idlib provinces… and go to central Aleppo… to protest and to light the spark of the Revolution,” said the message.
The group also called on people to rally after weekly Muslim prayers, branding July 1 “the Friday of departure” and saying in a message to Assad: “We don’t love you… Go away, you and your party.”
The opposition also turned up the heat on Assad, announcing the creation of a “national coordination committee” comprising exiled dissidents and opponents at home to push for democratic reforms.
“A national coordination committee has been formed, seeking national and democratic change in Syria,” rights lawyer Hassan Abdel Azim told AFP.
The committee “has drafted a political document that has been sent to political parties and [opposition] figures for discussion and approval,” he told AFP.
The announcement comes days after about 160 dissidents, several of whom have spent years in jail as political prisoners, gathered on Monday at a Damascus hotel and vowed to press ahead with a peaceful uprising.
The crackdown against Syrian protesters has been widely condemned and met with a series of sanctions.
On Wednesday the US Treasury issued a new list, targeting Syria’s Political Security Directorate and air force intelligence chief Major General Jamil Hassan.
Iran’s police force was also sanctioned “for providing support to the Syrian regime,” a statement in Washington said, about a week after the European Union slapped penalties on the Islamic republic for involvement in the crackdown — charges denied by Tehran.
Assad and six top aides have already been sanctioned by Washington, and the Syrian president is also on a list of 23 figures hit by an assets freeze and an EU travel ban.