Middle East

Syria unrest: Protesters released in Hama

Image said to be of protests in Hama. 15 July 2011. AP/Shaam News Network
Image caption This image taken by a resident is said to show recent protests in Hama

Reports from the Syrian city of Hama say 50 protesters arrested during the past few weeks have been released.

Residents told the BBC that government offices in the city have reopened after almost two weeks of closure.

Meanwhile, in the city of Homs, south of Hama, activists report that 30 people were killed on Saturday and Sunday.

It appears the violence followed the discovery of the mutilated bodies of three regime supporters.

This latest violence, activists say, appears to be sectarian in character. The regime supporters were Alawites - the minority ruling sect of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Observatory for Human Rights reports residents of Homs as saying that the discovery of the corpses of the government supporters provoked a furious reaction from a pro-regime militia.

Members of the militia went on a rampage firing indiscriminately in a Sunni Muslim area of the city, residents said.

Hama 'understanding'

The Syrian security forces pulled out of Hama last month in the face of growing protests, and activists have been keeping order in the city.

The BBC Arabic Service has learned that an understanding was reached between the authorities and a local cleric to remove activists' checkpoints and let businesses reopen in return for a halt to raids by security forces and the allowing of protests.

Overnight on Sunday, there was an opposition sit-in calling for the fall of President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Syria's anti-government protests, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, first erupted in mid-March after the arrest of a group of teenagers who spray-painted a revolutionary slogan on a wall. The protests soon spread, and the UN says 3,500 people have died in the turmoil - mainly protestors but also members of Syria's security forces - while thousands more have been injured.
Although the arrest of the teenagers in the southern city of Deraa first prompted people to take to the streets, unrest has since spread to other areas, including Hama, Homs, Latakia, Jisr al-Shughour and Baniyas. Demonstrators are demanding greater freedom, an end to corruption, and, increasingly, the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad.
The government has responded to the protests with overwhelming military force, sending tanks and troops into towns and cities. Amateur video footage shows tanks and snipers firing on unarmed protesters. There may have been an armed element to the uprising from its early days and army deserters have formed the Free Syrian Army.
Some of the bloodiest events have taken place in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. In early June, officials claimed 120 security personnel were killed by armed gangs, however protesters said the dead were shot by troops for refusing to kill demonstrators. As the military moved to take control of the town, thousands fled to neighbouring Turkey, taking refuge in camps.
Although the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo have seen pockets of unrest and some protests, it has not been widespread - due partly to a heavy security presence. There have been rallies in the capital - one with an enormous Syrian flag - in support of President Assad, who still receives the backing of many in Syria's middle class, business elite and minority groups.
The Assad family has been in power for 40 years, with Bashar al-Assad inheriting office in 2000. The president has opened up the economy, but has continued to jail critics and control the media. He is from the minority Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shia Islam - but the country's 20 million people are mainly Sunni. The biggest protests have been in Sunni-majority areas.
The uprising has cost 3,500 lives, according to the UN and Jordan's King Abdullah says that President Assad should now step down. The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership and voted for sanctions. The EU has frozen the assets of Syrian officials, placed an arms embargo on Syria and banned imports of its oil. But fears remain of Syria collapsing into civil war.
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Hama, a city of 800,000, was the scene of a brutal crackdown in 1982 ordered by Hafez al-Assad, the president's late father, which left at least 10,000 dead.

In a separate development on Sunday, the website of the Syrian postal service was hacked by a group calling itself the Union of Free Syrian Hackers.

The group posted messages addressed to President Bashar al-Assad, telling him that the Syrian people will topple him soon and that the noose is waiting for him.

Protests and funerals

At least 28 people were killed in Syria's capital, Damascus, and other cities on Friday, in what some said were the largest protests since the anti-government uprising began in March.

Image caption Unverified photo said to show funeral protest in Kaboun

The following day saw tens of thousands of people attend funeral processions for those killed.

Videos posted on the internet apparently show thousands of protesters carrying coffins through the streets of Damascus on Saturday and calling for freedom.

International journalists have been denied access to Syria and the figures cannot be independently verified.

Human rights groups say that about 1,400 civilians and 350 security forces personnel have died in the four months of protest.

The government blames the unrest on "armed criminal gangs" backed by a foreign conspiracy.

In an attempt to defuse the unrest, ministers recently held a two-day "national dialogue" between members of the ruling Baath party and its opponents.

However, many opposition leaders and protest organisers refused to attend.

Are you in Syria? What do you think of the ongoing protests? Send us your comments and experiences.

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