Syrian protesters call for Assad ouster

Protesters demonstrated yesterday in Sana, Yemen, calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. Police responded with live ammunition, injuring 45 people. Protesters demonstrated yesterday in Sana, Yemen, calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. Police responded with live ammunition, injuring 45 people. (Ammar Awad/ Reuters)
By Bassem Mroue
Associated Press / April 19, 2011

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BEIRUT — More than 5,000 antigovernment protesters in Syria took over the main square of the country’s third-largest city yesterday, vowing to occupy the site until President Bashar Assad is ousted and defying authorities who warn they will not be forced into reforms.

The government, however, blamed the weeks of antigovernment unrest in the country on ultraconservative Muslims seeking to establish a fundamentalist state and terrorize the people, in the latest official effort to portray the reform movement as populated by extremists.

The Egypt-style standoff in the central city of Homs followed funeral processions by more than 10,000 mourners for some of those killed in clashes Sunday that a rights group said left at least 12 people dead.

It also brought a high-stakes challenge to security forces over whether to risk more bloodshed — and international backlash — by trying to clear the square.

In the past month, Syrian security forces have launched a deadly crackdown on demonstrations, killing at least 200 people, according to human rights groups.

Many Syrians also say progovernment thugs — known as Shabiha — have terrorized neighborhoods with tactics such as opening fire into the air.

The government has in the past blamed armed gangs seeking to stir up unrest for many of the killings, such as those who killed seven people, including three army officers, on Sunday in Homs.

Yesterday, the Interior Ministry identified the gangs as armed Salafi groups, referring to an ultraconservative form of Islam that has its roots in Saudi Arabia and can be found all over the region.

The statement carried by the state news agency said the gangs were seeking to establish emirates and were “abusing the freedoms and reforms launched’’ by Assad. Assad has been playing on fears of sectarian warfare as he works to quell any popular support for the uprising and has blamed the unrest on a foreign plot to sow sectarian strife — echoing pronouncements from almost every other besieged leader in the region.

Earlier in the day, at least six coffins were carried by the massive funeral procession in Homs, about 100 miles north of Damascus, said two witnesses.

Security forces stayed away from the mourners in an apparent move to avoid confrontation, said the witnesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals.

After the funeral, thousands of people marched to Homs’s main Sa’a Jadida Square, or the New Clock Square, where they chanted “people want to bring down the regime’’ and “peaceful, peaceful,’’ the witnesses said.

Several top figures who defected from the embattled president’s camp set up their own opposition party yesterday in another blow to the longtime ruler who has clung to power in Yemen despite near-daily protests demanding his ouster.

Police in a southern port town fired tear gas and live ammunition at thousands of protesters calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down, injuring 45 people.

Yemeni rights groups say the crackdown has killed more than 120 people, but it has not deterred crowds from gathering.

According to activist Riyadh al-Absi, of the 45 protesters hurt in yesterday’s violence in the Red Sea port of al-Hudaydah, 12 were wounded by bullets fired by plainclothes police. Police used batons to beat protesters who responded by throwing stones, al-Absi said.

In the capital Sana, several top figures and lawmakers — many of them defectors from Saleh’s ruling Congress Party — set up the “Justice and Construction Bloc’’ and issued a statement insisting that Saleh relinquish power.

Gulf troops will stay indefinitely in Bahrain as a counter to perceived threats from Iran, which the island kingdom’s Sunni rulers have used as a reason for their harsh crackdown on the country’s Shi’ite opposition.

Bahrain’s king declared martial law last month and invited about 1,500 troops from Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states to help contain a Shi’ite uprising that Sunni leaders around the oil-rich region believe could open the way for greater influence by Shi’ite powerhouse Iran.

Tehran has no history of political ties to Bahrain’s Shi’ites, but it has denounced the Saudi-led troop deployment and condemned the crackdown. top stories on Twitter

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