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Mon July 4, 2011
NPR Story

Syrian Security Forces Kill 2 Anti-Regime Protesters

In Syria, the city of Hama has been the scene of the largest anti-government protests in the country.

Rallies have often been met with armed retaliation by security police. That didn't happen at Friday's mass rally, and the city's governor was fired. There were reports of tanks advancing on the city.

Hama is a sensitive place. Thirty years ago, the Syrian army crushed an Islamist rebellion there, killing tens of thousands.

Now, a new generation is on the streets, demanding democracy.

A Coming Backlash?

Syrian tanks pulled back from entrances of Hama, says Omar al Habbal, a resident and government opponent. He said there were some arrests on the outskirts of his city. But he was on the street again Sunday to join another nighttime rally of anti-government protesters, despite power cuts to Hama.

"People enjoying coming and calling for freedom, we have not been used to that," he says.

For the past three weeks, security forces and the military have stayed outside of the city after clashes in early June. The government says the violence was instigated by armed gangs, but Habbal says Hama's protests have been peaceful all along.

"We don't know why they take decision to shoot the people," he says. "There was a big massacre, around 120 people killed and thousands of injuries."

He says government officials worked to keep the city calm, negotiating settlements with the families of those who died. The head of security was fired, and the governor worked out an agreement that peaceful protests would be permitted in Hama.

"He is good guy. He is educated; he's a doctor in law," Habbal says. "He was acting, playing a cooling way."

But the governor was sacked Saturday and reportedly jailed. The government gave no reason for the dismissal, but it came after the largest anti-government rally in the country. Habbal says that the crowds swelled in Hama because neighboring villagers now join the demonstrations.

But with the dismissal of the governor, who worked to accommodate peaceful protests, and the overnight arrests, many in Hama fear a security backlash is coming.

Habbal believes it's a sign of a split over policy at the highest levels of the Syrian government.

"Sometimes they want to cool up. Some other people maybe they want to fire up. So, I think it's stupid if they do clashes in Hama on wide range," he says. "They might do on small scale, just to reduce and not allow the demonstration to grow bigger and bigger."

Attempts At Dialogue

The events in Hama overshadowed a meeting of government loyalists in Damascus. They gathered in a hotel in the center of the city to urge the government to open a dialogue. They demanded reforms, called for tanks to pull out of Hama and advised the government to negotiate with those who are organizing the protests on the street.

Mohammed Habash, a member of Syria's Parliament, is a government supporter, but he says he is politically independent.

Habash organized the meeting, but kept a close watch on the developments in Hama, as reports reached the capital that tanks had deployed. If there is a renewed crackdown, he believes dialogue will become impossible.

"I believe with this kind of conflict we cannot help government, we cannot help opposition, we cannot help any one," he says. "This kind of meeting, it was very hard one and we find a lot of problems."

Problems that undermined the message of these Syrians trying to find a way out. The meeting was chaotic, despite being sanctioned by the government. A nervous hotel staff cut the electricity and the sound system, and tried to drag participants out before the speeches began.

The group was promoting dialogue, but a fight broke out when one participant shouted that the gathering supported demands of the protesters on the street. He was punched by other members of the group.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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