Thousands protest in Syria, brush off reforms

/ Source: The Associated Press

Thousands of students demonstrated Wednesday against Syria's authoritarian regime, brushing off President Bashar Assad's sweeping declarations of reform as the country's growing protest movement vowed to stage the biggest rallies to date on Friday.

The monthlong uprising in Syria has posed the biggest challenge to the 40-year ruling dynasty of President Bashar Assad and his father before him. On Tuesday, Syria did away with 50 years of emergency rule — but emboldened and defiant crowds accused Assad of simply trying to buy time while he clings to power.

"We are preparing for a huge demonstration on Friday," said an activist in the southern city of Daraa, where anti-government protests first erupted last month and later spread nationwide.

Prolonged instability in Syria could have serious repercussions well beyond its borders. The closed-off nation punches above its weight in terms of regional influence because of its alliances with militant groups like Lebanon's Hezbollah and with Shiite powerhouse Iran. That has given Damascus a pivotal role in most of the flashpoint issues of the Middle East, from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran's widening influence.

Protesters have vowed to keep up their demonstrations. In recent days, the movement has crossed a significant threshold, with increasing numbers now seeking nothing less than the downfall of the regime.

At least 200 people have been killed as the government cracked down on the protesters.

On Wednesday, 4,000 university students from Daraa and surrounding areas protested near the city's al-Omari Mosque. Activists also said dozens of students protested Wednesday at Aleppo University in the country's north, adding there were confrontations on campus between pro and anti-government students.

The witnesses spoke by telephone on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The regime has coupled its crackdown with a series of concessions, including an end to the state of emergency, which gives authorities almost boundless powers of surveillance and arrest.

Abolishing the reviled laws was once the key demand of the uprising against Assad, a British-trained eye doctor who took power 11 years ago but has failed to fulfill early promises of reform.

A resident of the city of Homs in central Syria also said preparations for Friday protests were under way, but declined to go into details over the phone.

Homs has been tense since clashes between protesters and security forces killed at least 12 people Sunday. On Tuesday, security forces there opened fire with live ammunition and tear gas on hundreds of anti-government demonstrators during a pre-dawn raid that killed several people.

The resident said there was heavy security presence in Homs on Wednesday, with many opting to stay at home.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton rapped the Syrian government for its crackdown on the protests, saying Damascus "must stop the arbitrary arrests, detentions and torture of prisoners, and it must cease the violence."

Britain's Foreign Office on Wednesday said U.K. nationals should consider leaving Syria on commercial flights, after it upgraded warnings about unrest there. In a statement, the ministry said it had changed its advice "in light of the deterioration in the security situation in Syria."

British diplomats had warned that violent clashes are anticipated between local security forces and demonstrators.

Also Wednesday, human rights activists said Syrian authorities arrested an opposition figure at his home during an overnight raid, hours after the government announced an end to emergency rule.

Syrian Human Rights League chief, Abdul-Karim Rihawi, said security agents picked up Mahmoud Issa from his home in the central city of Homs after an interview he gave to Al-Jazeera satellite TV late Tuesday.

He said his "arbitrary arrest is in line with the state of emergency rule" and said he expected him to be released after President Assad signs the decree formally abolishing the emergency rule.

Rights activist Mazen Darwish said the interview Issa gave to Al-Jazeera angered relatives of a Syrian brigadier general who was killed along with his two sons and a nephew Sunday in Homs.

The government says they were gunned down by "armed gangs" that authorities blame for the violence during anti-government protests of the past month.

Darwish said Issa, in the interview, said he didn't know who was behind the killing and called for an investigation, enraging bereaved relatives who reportedly threatened Issa before alerting the police.

Issa, who spent years in prison for his pro-democracy views, was picked up from his home shortly afterward.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner expressed concern about Issa's arrest, noting its timing only a day after Assad's speech promising reform and the repeal of Syria's emergency law.

"This arrest today calls into question the Syrian government's intentions with respect to real reform, and indeed their desire to meet the demands of the Syrian people," Toner told reporters. "Actions speak louder than words."