Witnesses say four protesters killed in Syria
Gulf bloc urges Yemen’s Saleh to resign
BEIRUT — Syrian security forces and progovernment gunmen killed four protesters yesterday in the port city of Banias after the army sealed off the city as hundreds gathered, undaunted by the regime’s use of deadly force to quell more than three weeks of unrest, witnesses said.
State TV reported that nine soldiers were killed in an ambush near the city.
Details were sketchy because telephone lines, Internet access, and electricity apparently were cut to most parts of the city. Army tanks and soldiers circled the city, preventing people from entering.
But one witness, reached by telephone, said hundreds of protesters had gathered near al-Rahman mosque when security forces and armed men in civilian clothes opened fire on them.
The names of the dead were read through mosque loudspeakers.
He said dozens of people were wounded, but most of them asked to be treated at a small clinic instead of at the main hospital, which was under the control of the feared security forces.
Several other human rights activists, also citing witnesses, reported shooting in Banias yesterday.
“There are demonstrations throughout the city, and people are chanting against the regime,’’ said Haitham al-Maleh, an 80-year-old lawyer and longtime rights activist who spent years as a political prisoner in Syria.
The accounts could not be independently confirmed. The government has placed severe restrictions on news coverage, and many journalists have been ordered to leave the country.
Protests erupted in Syria more than three weeks ago and have been growing steadily every week, with tens of thousands of people calling for sweeping reforms in President Bashar Assad’s authoritarian regime.
More than 170 people have been killed, according to human rights groups.
The government blames the violence on armed gangs rather than true reform-seekers and has vowed to crush unrest. Yesterday, the state-run news agency said nine soldiers were killed in an ambush near Banias, which is 185 miles northwest of the capital, Damascus.
Assad said that the country is “moving ahead on the road of comprehensive reforms,’’ the state-run news agency SANA reported.
In recent weeks, Assad has answered the protesters with force and limited concessions that have failed to appease an emboldened movement inspired by the Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
A key demand of protesters is an end to a decades-old emergency law that gives the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge.
But Assad has stopped well short of the protesters’ demands. Instead, he has promised to form committees to look into reform.
Other gestures include granting citizenship to thousands of Kurds, the country’s long-ostracized minority, and sacking his Cabinet.
Keeping up the pressure, tens of thousands of protesters marched in Yemen’s capital, Sana, a day after renewed clashes between demonstrators and security forces there. Witnesses said police fired a barrage of tear gas late Saturday and that many demonstrators suffered breathing problems.
The statement, by foreign ministers of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, was a call for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down, something he has refused to do. The bloc repeated an offer to mediate between Saleh and his opponents, said the diplomat, who requested anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.
The bloc’s plan would have Saleh resign in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
The pair includes one of the country’s most outspoken academics, Nasser bin Ghaith, who is a financial analyst and an economics professor at the Abu Dhabi branch of Paris’s Sorbonne university. He was detained yesterday in Dubai, said the lawyer, Mohammed al-Mansouri, a fellow activist.
He has frequently criticized the Gulf region’s ruling sheiks for refusing to consider all but the most limited of political reforms and for failing to provide a legal framework for the staggering economic development of the past decade.
The other activist, Fahad Salem al-Shehhy, was detained late Saturday in Ajman, another of the federation’s emirates north of Dubai, al-Mansouri said. Shehhy has been participating in an online forum calling for free elections and other democratic reforms in the UAE.