Protests sweep Arab world, 22 die in Syria

Protests erupted across much of the Arab world on the Muslim day of prayer, with demonstrators killed in Syria and Yemen while Egyptians staged one of the biggest rallies since President Hosni Mubarak’s fall.

In Syria, 22 people were killed on Friday, sources in the southern Syrian city of Deraa said, in attacks on protesters condemned by US President Barack Obama as “abhorrent”.

Five people were shot dead in Yemen and at the heart of the Arab protest movement, Cairo’s Tahrir Square, military police beat protesters and fired shots to disperse crowds demanding Mubarak’s prosecution as discontent with military rule grows.

In Saudi Arabia, Shi’ites protested in the oil-producing east to call for the withdrawal of Saudi troops from Bahrain, while in Oman, a planned protest was prevented by security.

Friday has become a peak day of protest for many Arabs since popular demands for freedom, democracy and an end to corruption began in Tunisia late last year and spread across the region.

In Syria, security forces opened fire on thousands of demonstrators in the southern city of Deraa as protests against President Bashar al-Assad flared in several towns.

A volunteer at Deraa hospital and an activist said 22 people were killed and 120 wounded. It took the death toll in three weeks of protests to more than 90.

“There were snipers on roofs. Gunfire was heavy. The injured are being taken to homes. No one trusts putting his relative in a hospital in these circumstances,” said a witness, who spoke to Reuters by telephone.

Authorities have blamed armed groups for the violence, and state television broadcast footage of masked gunmen in plain clothes it said fired at security forces and civilians alike. It said 19 policemen were killed.

Syria has prevented other media reporting from Deraa.

In eastern Syria, ethnic Kurds demonstrated for reform, sceptical of Assad’s offer this week to ease rules which bar many of them from obtaining citizenship, activists said.

Obama said all violence and repression in Syria had to stop. “The arbitrary arrests, detention, and torture of prisoners that has been reported must end now, and the free flow of information must be permitted so that there can be independent verification of events on the ground,” he said in a statement.

No orders or intervention
Protests in Yemen descended into violence in which at least five people were killed and dozens wounded as President Ali Abdullah Saleh rejected a Gulf Arab plan to secure an end to his 32 years in power. The deaths bring the toll from clashes with security forces this week to at least 26.

Three protesters were shot dead in Taiz and 150 were wounded by gunfire, 10 of them critically doctors said. About 200 were hurt by tear gas inhalation.

The Defence Ministry said forces commanded by renegade General Ali Mohsen killed two pro-Saleh demonstrators in the capital, Sana’a. Mohsen’s forces were not immediately available for comment.

Tens of thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir Square demanded Mubarak’s prosecution and accused the military of being too slow to root out corruption from his era.

“Oh, field marshal, we’ve been very patient!” chanted some of the demonstrators in the square, hub of the movement that toppled Mubarak on February 11 and left the army in charge, led by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

Friday’s protest had swollen by early afternoon to at least 100 000, indicating growing frustration with the army which has enjoyed broad support since it took control of the country.

“It’s a strong message that the revolution is not over yet and is still going on and will not quieten down before its goals are realised,” said Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science and a prominent figure in the reform movement.

But after the curfew, set from 2am to 5am, military police and state security officers surrounded the square.

“They are moving in on us with very aggressive force, I can see people running in every direction,” Mohamed Fahmy (29) said by telephone, while screaming and gun shots, which he said were fired by the police into the air, sounded in the background.

Hundreds of Saudi Shi’ites demanded that Saudi troops return from Bahrain, and called for political rights and freedoms at home, demonstrators said.

The protests — with riot police nowhere to be seen — were held in the main Shi’ite Muslim centre of Qatif, where demonstrators, some of them women, waved Bahraini as well as Saudi flags, and the nearby village of Awamiya.

Saudi Arabia sent 1 000 troops last month to Bahrain, a Sunni Muslim monarchy, to help contain pro-democracy protests led by that Gulf Arab country’s Shi’ite majority.

Heavy security prevented demonstrations after Friday prayers in the Omani city of Sohar, where protesters camped out for more than a month before forces moved them out last week. – Reuters

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