Syrian troops kill 27 as protests near capital intensify

Rallies in rest of country meet little resistance

By Liz Sly
Washington Post / July 16, 2011

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BEIRUT - Syrian security forces killed 27 antigovernment protesters in several towns and cities after prayers yesterday, primarily in Damascus, amid indications that opposition to President Bashar Assad is hardening in the capital.

According to the Local Coordination Committees, a group that organizes and monitors protests, 22 people were killed in neighborhoods and suburbs of Damascus, the highest daily toll there since the nationwide uprising began four months ago. Activists said the protests in the capital were also the largest yet, pointing to what they said was a rising tide of anti-Assad sentiment in the heart of his government’s power base.

The violent response shows that the authorities “are 100 percent worried about Damascus,’’ said Rami Abdelrahman of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, who estimated that 50,000 people took to the streets in and around the city.

Figures could not be independently confirmed because the government has restricted journalists’ access to Syria. But the reported size of the demonstrations remains small compared with those that have toppled rulers elsewhere.

The deadliest crackdown came in the suburb of Qaboun, where 14 demonstrators died after security forces fired on what activists described as a demonstration of 25,000 people. Video posted on YouTube showed thousands marching through the streets chanting antigovernment slogans and holding banners proclaiming “Out Bashar’’ and “Game Over Bashar’’ in English.

Qaboun has emerged as an opposition stronghold in recent weeks, and dissidents had hoped to hold a conference there today to form a strategy for ousting Assad in coordination with a parallel gathering of exiled opposition leaders in Istanbul. But after the killings yesterday, organizers called off the meeting because of safety concerns.

Another video showed the biggest demonstration yet to be held in the central Damascus neighborhood of Midan, where authorities have repeatedly tried and failed to quell protests by bringing in security forces.

Two eyewitnesses put the size of the crowd at several thousand and said scattered demonstrations continued for several hours despite efforts by security forces to disperse protesters with batons and tear gas.

Elsewhere, far bigger demonstrations went off without incident, in an indication that the government may be losing its grip in some parts of the country.

In the eastern border towns of Deir al-Zour and Bokamal, security forces made no attempt to prevent tens of thousands of people from marching. Large demonstrations also proceeded unhindered in the central city of Hama, which was effectively taken over by government opponents more than a month ago.

The scale of the protests in Damascus was seen as significant because, until now, the capital has been considered a stronghold of government support.

“Damascus has proved that it is changing,’’ said Wissam Tarif of the human rights group Insan.

Some activists said the protesters have been encouraged by signs that the international community is toughening its stance against Assad, after comments this week in which Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Assad had “lost legitimacy.’’ top stories on Twitter

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