Protesters and Syrian regime claim casualties
Egyptians rally, 1,000 march on Israeli Embassy
BEIRUT — Mass protests calling for sweeping changes in Syria’s authoritarian regime turned deadly yesterday, with the government and protesters both claiming heavy casualties as the country’s three-week uprising entered a dangerous new phase.
The bloodiest clashes occurred in the restive city of Daraa, where human rights activists and witnesses said Syrian security forces opened fire on tens of thousands of protesters, killing 25 people and wounding hundreds.
At the same time, state-run TV said 19 policemen and members of the security forces were killed when gunmen opened fire on them. It was the first significant claim of casualties by the Syrian government, which has contended that armed gangs rather than true reform-seekers are behind the unrest. The claim could signal plans for a stepped-up retaliation.
The protests were in response to calls by organizers to take to the streets every Friday to demand change in one of the most rigid nations in the Middle East. Marches were held in cities across the country as the movement showed no sign of letting up, despite the violent crackdowns. At least 32 protesters were killed nationwide, according to human rights activists. The bloodshed lifted the death toll from three weeks of protests to more than 170 people, according to Amnesty International.
The calls for reform have shaken the regime of President Bashar Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for over 40 years. Assad, a British-trained eye doctor, inherited power from his father 11 years ago and tried to help the country emerge from years of international isolation and lift Soviet-style economic restrictions. But despite early promises of social and political change, Assad has slipped back into the autocratic ways of his father.
As the wave of protests has gathered momentum, Assad has offered limited concessions, firing local officials and forming committees to look into replacing the country’s despised emergency laws, which allow the regime to arrest people without charge. On Thursday, he granted citizenship to thousands of Kurds, fulfilling a decades-old demand of the country’s long-ostracized minority.
Egypt CAIRO — Egypt’s protesters stepped up their challenge to the country’s ruling military yesterday, as tens of thousands massed to demand it prosecute ousted President Hosni Mubarak and his family for alleged corruption, and a smaller group tested the army’s tolerance with a march on Israel’s embassy.
The mass rally in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square was the biggest by protesters in weeks, and hundreds remaining there shortly before midnight said they were planning to camp out overnight. A smaller group of more than 1,000 marched on the Israeli Embassy, angered by strikes on the Gaza Strip yesterday, and pushed for Egypt’s new rulers to close the mission and stop Egypt’s natural gas exports to Israel.
The march was the first significant anti-Israeli demonstration since Egypt’s upheaval began nearly three months ago, and it was an unusual test of the military, which took power after Mubarak’s ouster on Feb. 11. The generals have promised Egyptians greater freedom of expression but at the same time have sought to reassure Israel and the United States that the fall of Mubarak would not mean an anti-Israeli turn in Egypt’s foreign policy.
Mubarak’s security forces strictly prevented protests from getting close to the Israeli embassy, located in a residential building overlooking a bridge over the Nile. Soldiers yesterday allowed the demonstration to get nearer than others, to a checkpoint yards from the building. At the same time, officers at the checkpoint tried to convince the crowd to disperse.
Yemen SANA — Yemen’s president rejected a mediation offer by Gulf nations that called on him to resign, denouncing the proposal in a speech before tens of thousands of cheering supporters in the capital yesterday. Demonstrations around the country demanded his ouster and turned bloody in a southern city where three people were shot and killed.
The violence in Taiz took place during a burial procession. Witnesses said police fired tear gas and bullets and beat protesters carrying the coffins of several people killed during a demonstration last week. Three men were fatally shot, at least 10 others were seriously injured, and hundreds of others suffered breathing problems, said Dr. Sadek al-Shuga, who was running a makeshift field hospital nearby.
Security forces surrounded the Taiz protesters and the clashes continued after dark yesterday, said Taiz activist Bushra al-Maqtari. By evening, tens of thousands of demonstrators poured into the Yemeni capital, Sana, chanting slogans against President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
More than 120 people have been killed since Yemen’s protests calling for the removal of Saleh began on Feb. 11, inspired by popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.