SYRIA: Security forces, officials attempt to head off protests

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Syrian security forces and officials appeared to be mobilizing in Damascus and other cities Wednesday to prevent the spread of pro-democracy protests expected to swell after Friday prayers.

In the Damascus suburbs, residents told Reuters on Wednesday that roadblocks and arrests had intensified.

Security forces arrested at least two students Wednesday during a sit-in demonstration at Damascus University during which students reportedly sang the Syrian national anthem, according to a Facebook video that could not be independently verified.

The protest at the country’s oldest and largest university came after students released a statement Wednesday condemning the recent “massacres, killings and arrests committed against peaceful demonstrators in Syria,’ calling them ‘deplorable ... painful events.”


‘As young people, we are part of the Syrian nation. We declare our solidarity with the legitimate demands for freedom and justice,’ the students wrote.

Students who participated in the protest said they felt they might be risking their lives. During a previous protest April 11, a student was shot and killed by security forces. One of the students at Wednesday’s protest, who asked not to be named, said he wanted to honor the souls of the martyrs who had been murdered by their brothers in the Syrian army and security forces.

Protesters called for a stop to Syrian security forces’ siege on the southern city of Dara, where demonstrations began March 18, and for the government of President Bashar Assad to respect their right to assemble and protest peacefully.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Adel Safar visited Damascus merchants Wednesday in an effort to build good will, stabilize the local economy and prevent the wealthier classes from joining in the protests, according to government officials who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak.

Syrian Central Bank officials also took steps Wednesday to stabilize the pound, which had seen some conversion to U.S. dollars in recent days. They announced they would raise interest rates on deposits by 2% and halve banks’ reserve requirements to 5%, Reuters reported. The measures were intended to encourage savings and fund development, according to SANA, the state-run news agency.

According to Syria’s al-Watan newspaper, Assad said Wednesday that the Syrian army would end its mission in Dara ‘very soon,’ playing down the uprising there and the army’s response.

‘Any country in the world could be subjected to events that Dara has been subjected to,’ the paper quoted Assad saying during a meeting with officials from the cities of Deir al-Zor and Albou Kamal near the Iraqi border.

Syrian authorities have blamed armed groups and infiltrators for stoking the ongoing unrest in Dara and other cities.

On Wednesday, a Syrian military official told SANA that security forces had arrested members of an armed terrorist group in Dara, where they found weapons and ammunition hidden underground and in gardens.

-- Roula Hajjar in Beirut