Syrian security forces raided dormitories at the university where President Bashar Assad this week gave a speech on political reform after students refused to participate in pro-regime rallies, witnesses and opposition activists said Wednesday.
Several people were killed and dozens were beaten or detained by security forces who launched the raid at Damascus University late Tuesday, activists said. The raid came hours before Foreign Minister Walid Moallem gave a news conference televised live in which he reiterated the pledge Assad made at the university Monday to commit to reform and to hold broad negotiations with different segments of Syrian society.
There were also reports of deadly violence between antigovernment protesters and those loyal to Assad in other parts of the country.
“A leader only sets a vision for reform,” Moallem said during the news conference. “The tangible results … are going to come from the negotiation table. After we make reforms, we will teach others how to reform.”
Like Assad, Moallem described the months-long protest movement against the regime as the work of foreign conspirators. He called European sanctions against Syria for human rights violations “almost a declaration of war.” Moallem also promised more rounds of amnesty for prisoners, many of whom have been held on security charges without trial for years.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters that he had noted the Assad government’s promise of reforms, but also questioned its credibility “because the situation has been continuing.”
According to witnesses and activists, prisoners at a detention facility in the eastern province of Hasakah rioted late Tuesday, taking control of the facility and demanding freedom before being surrounded by army troops.
“There are no guards in the prison any more,” said Khalaf Dahowd, a Syrian opposition activist based in Britain who is in touch with relatives in the mostly ethnic Kurdish province. “The prison is surrounded by the army and there is a big fear they might attack the prison.”
The raid at Damascus University resembled similar attacks on rebellious students after the disputed 2009 presidential election in Iran, a strategic partner of Syria that some allege has been aiding the crackdown on a broad democracy movement.
Security forces launched the full-blown attack on the dormitories late Tuesday after several students refused to take part earlier in the day in marches that displayed adoration and allegiance to the Syrian leader.
Activists and witnesses said the government all but ordered thousands of Syrians to take part in the demonstrations. Artisans, merchants and clergy were among those who were sent “invitations” from Syrian syndicates, associations and ministries, to participate in the rallies, they said.
According to European-based human rights activist Wissam Tarif, the unrest at the university began after some women who heeded calls to go to the police station for questioning did not return to the dorms by dusk.
“When the students didn’t return, 200 students protested their disappearance and asked for their release,” Tarif said.
Still others began chanting slogans from their rooms.
“The security forces have come to understand the chant ‘God is great’ as a threat and sign of defiance,” said Omar Ibdy, an opposition activist in Syria.
Activists said students clashed with pro-Assad security forces, who used live ammunition against the protesters. Security forces cut electricity to the dormitories, and beatings went on for hours in the darkness, activists said.
In addition to at least three killed, 21 students were reported injured, two of whom were in critical condition. An additional 130 students were arrested, Ibdy said.
Many injured students were taken to Mowasad Hospital. “Doctors in the hospitals have reported seeing burns, bullet wounds and cuts from electricity shocks,” Tarif said.
Activists fear that students will be a target of the regime, especially in relatively quiet big cities such as Damascus and Aleppo, where they often take the lead in beginning demonstrations.
“Participating in demonstrations only serves enemies of Syria,” Moallem said at the news conference. “But we have allowed them into the streets, which only serves Syrian democracy.”
Hajjar is a special correspondent. A special correspondent in Damascus contributed to this report.