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Death toll tops 120 in two days of unrest in Syria

In this mobile phone photo taken by an onlooker Saturday, antigovernment protesters in Quaboun near Damascus, Syria, carry the coffin of an activist who was killed on Friday.

Associated Press

In this mobile phone photo taken by an onlooker Saturday, antigovernment protesters in Quaboun near Damascus, Syria, carry the coffin of an activist who was killed on Friday.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian security forces fired on funeral processions that drew tens of thousands Saturday, one day after the bloodiest crackdown so far in the uprising against President Bashar Assad. The shootings pushed the two-day death toll to more than 120, and two lawmakers and a religious leader resigned in disgust over the killings.

The resignations were a possible sign of cracks developing in the regime's base in a nation where nearly all opposition figures have been either jailed or exiled during the 40-year dynasty of the Assad family.

"I cannot tolerate the blood of our innocent sons and children being shed," Sheikh Rizq Abdul-Rahim Abazeid told the Associated Press after stepping down from his post as the mufti of the Daraa region in southern Syria.

The lawmakers, Nasser Hariri and Khalil Rifai, also are from Daraa, which has become the epicenter of the protest movement after a group of teenagers were arrested there for scrawling antiregime graffiti on a wall in mid March.

Since then, the relentless crackdown on demonstrations has only served to invigorate protesters whose rage over the bloodshed has all but eclipsed their earlier demands for modest reforms. Now, many are seeking Assad's downfall.

Each Friday, growing numbers of people in cities across the country have taken to the streets despite swift attacks from security forces and pro-government gunmen known as "shabiha."

Ammar Qurabi, the head of Syria's National Organization for Human Rights, said 112 people were killed Friday and at least 11 Saturday. Friday was by far the deadliest day of the uprising, with security forces beating back protesters with bullets, tear gas and stun guns.

"If I cannot protect the chests of my people from these treacherous strikes, then there is no meaning for me to stay in the People's Assembly. I declare my resignation," Hariri told Al-Jazeera in a televised interview.

Radwan Ziadeh, a visiting scholar at the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, said the resignations were largely symbolic because the parliament has no real power. But their dissent could encourage others to step down, such as Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, who is from Daraa, Ziadeh said.

He added that Assad met with the lawmakers in recent weeks, promising them that security forces wouldn't shoot protesters.

The uprising in Syria takes its inspiration from the popular revolts that toppled the leaders in Egypt and Tunisia. But Syria is a highly unpredictable country, in part because of its sizable minority population, the loyalty of the country's military and the regime's web of allegiances to powerful forces, including Lebanon's Hezbollah and Shiite powerhouse Iran.

Serious, prolonged unrest in Syria would almost inevitably hurt Hezbollah and weaken Iran's influence in the region. But it isn't at all clear what factions would have the upper hand if a power vacuum emerges. There are no organized, credible opposition leaders who can rally followers on the ground or be considered as a possible successor.

The heavy security crackdown came after Assad warned a week ago that any further unrest would be considered "sabotage" after lifting long-hated emergency laws, which gave security forces almost blanket powers for surveillance and arrest.

The AP said it was told by Syrians who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals that the country's intelligence forces are everywhere, including among garbage collectors, and that all phones are monitored. Plainclothes officers within crowds wear orange bracelets so other agents don't mistakenly hit them with stun guns, AP said it was told, while snipers wore yellow pieces of cloth on their shoulders.

The witness accounts could not be independently confirmed because Syria has expelled journalists and restricted access to trouble spots.

Elias Muhanna, a political analyst at Harvard University, said the protests have crossed a threshold and serious pressure could be building on Assad.

The protest movement has been the gravest challenge to the autocratic regime led by Assad, who inherited power from his father 11 years ago in one of the most rigidly controlled countries in the Middle East.

"It remains to be seen whether this was a tipping point in the struggle between the opposition and the regime," said Muhanna, author of the Lebanese affairs blog Qifa Nabki. "But one thing is certain: The regime can no longer claim that the demonstrations are a fringe phenomenon."

Assad has blamed most of the unrest on a "foreign conspiracy" and armed thugs trying to sow sectarian strife. Fears of sectarianism resonate in Syria, with the dangers of fractured societies so apparent in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon.

Unknown assailants attacked a security checkpoint in the southern town of Nawa on Saturday, killing five people, the state news agency reported, quoting a military official. Two of the attackers were also killed in a shootout. It described the attackers as an "armed criminal group."

Besides the government crackdown, Assad has been trying to defuse the protests by offering a series of concessions: granting citizenship to thousands among Syria's long-ostracized Kurdish minority, firing local officials, releasing detainees, and forming a new government. The recent lifting of emergency laws once had been a top demand.

But many protesters said the concessions have come too late and Assad doesn't deserve the credit because the protest movement is forcing his hand.

The increasing death toll also has brought international condemnation.

In Washington on Friday, President Barack Obama condemned the latest use of force by Syria against antigovernment demonstrators and said the regime's "outrageous" use of violence must "end now."

Syria's state TV quoted an unnamed official as saying Damascus "regrets" Obama's comments. "They are not based on an objective vision," the official said, without elaborating.

Death toll tops 120 in two days of unrest in Syria 04/23/11 [Last modified: Sunday, April 24, 2011 12:02am]

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