Syrian forces open fire from cars

BEIRUT: Syrian security forces opened fire from their cars Thursday on thousands of protesters demanding President Bashar Assad’s ouster, killing at least two people, activists said. The violence in Deir El-Zour, near the border with Iraq, brings the death toll to nine after two days of military operations across the country. Military sweeps began Wednesday in the capital, the northern Idlib province, the central city of Homs and near the Turkish border.

“All the shops have closed, we have announced a general strike, maybe even civil disobedience,” said an activist in Deir El-Zour, who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone. He asked that his name not be published for fear of retribution. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of sources on the ground across the country, said at least two people were killed and ten others wounded. At least one of the victims was a 45-year-old man, but there were no further details. Activists also reported partial strikes in several towns and cities, including Homs and the Damascus suburb of Douma. The strikes increase economic pressure on the regime, which already is struggling to keep the business community and prosperous merchant classes afloat.

If business comes to a halt, private enterprises go bankrupt and government cannot pay state employees, there will be very little to prop up the regime. Assad is trying to crush a four-month-old uprising that refuses to back down, despite a deadly government crackdown that activists say has killed some 1,600 people since the middle of March. The government disputes the toll and blames the bloodshed on a foreign conspiracy and “armed gangs.” Syria’s state-run news agency SANA said masked gunmen tried to cut roads in Deir El-Zour Thursday and forced shop owners to close their stores. It added the gunmen terrorized people and vandalized some shops whose owners refused to close.

The regime accuses thugs and foreign conspirators — not true reform-seekers — of being behind the country’s unrest. SANA’s reports often contradict witness accounts. Elsewhere in Syria, at least seven people were killed late Wednesday during army raids in the Jabal Al-Zawiya region in the northern Idlib province, said Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso. The province has been the scene of military operations for weeks, apparently aimed at preventing residents from fleeing into refugee camps in neighboring Turkey. The sight of thousands of Syrians seeking refuge in Turkey has been a source of deep embarrassment to the Assad regime.

Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights, said security forces broke up a peaceful anti-government protest in Damascus on Wednesday evening, beating some protesters and arresting intellectuals, actors and artists. On Thursday, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso dismissed Assad’s reform promises and stressed the EU would keep up calls for “urgent change” in Damascus. “President Assad’s promises of reform and dialogue are weak and have yet to be fulfilled,” Barroso said during a visit to Cairo where he presented the “EU’s response to the Arab Spring.” Barroso said the EU, which has twice stepped up its sanctions against Damascus since an anti-regime revolt erupted in mid-March, “will continue to push for urgent change.” – Arabnews