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FACTDROP: In Syria's capital, dueling protests stand in sharp contrast


In Syria's capital, dueling protests stand in sharp contrast

Opponents of the Syrian regime gather in the city of Homs on Jan. 20, 2012.

Πηγή: Los Angeles Times
By Alexandra Zavis and Rima Marrouch
Jan 21 2012

Reporting from Damascus, Syria—

In a central square, government supporters set up a stage and speakers for a rally, watched over by a towering portrait of President Bashar Assad that draped four stories of Syria's sanctioned central bank.

A short drive away, burly men in leather jackets wielding guns and truncheons massed outside a police station in the restive Midan neighborhood, near the site of a deadly bombing last month, ready to respond to the first sign of protest.

So began another Friday in the Syrian capital, Damascus. Long a bastion of support for the Assad family's four-decade rule, the increasingly divided city has become the scene of dueling demonstrations between supporters and opponents of a 10-month-old uprising inspired by last year's "Arab Spring" revolts.

The contrast between the protests is stark. While the government's supporters sang and danced for hours Friday, protected by police who blocked traffic from surrounding streets, its opponents waged a furtive game of cat and mouse with security forces in Midan's winding back alleys.

"Every day there is a protest here," said an opposition supporter, moving swiftly through narrow streets with blacked-out antigovernment graffiti on the walls.

Moments later, a gunshot popped in the distance, followed by several more shots. Rounding a corner, the opposition supporter reached an area full of men and young boys, some of them on bicycles, who were fanning out in different directions.

"Don't go," they hissed as they passed. "Live ammunition."

A young activist began leading the way to safety and then broke into a sprint, saying, "The dogs are behind us!"

Ducking into a building, he raced up a flight of stairs and took a seat on a step to wait for the security forces to pass. The neighborhood was surrounded, he said. But small groups of residents still gather after midday prayers for flash demonstrations, lasting just five to 10 minutes.

The opposition supporter said pro-government militiamen known as the shabiha, a name derived from the Arabic word for ghost, show up with knives to break up the protests.

"Last week we had five wounded," he said. "This Friday, they didn't come with knives and swords. This Friday, they came with bullets."

Similar scenes played out across the country as thousands took to the streets to demand the downfall of Assad's government and the release of political prisoners, many of whom the opposition says remain behind bars despite an amnesty announced this week.

Some also chanted for the withdrawal of Arab League observers, whose presence they say has done little to stem the violence that has claimed more than 5,000 lives since March, according to United Nations estimates. Arab foreign ministers are meeting Sunday in Cairo to decide whether to extend the monthlong mission to monitor the government's compliance with a league-negotiated peace plan calling for the withdrawal of security forces from cities and residential areas, the release of detainees and dialogue with the opposition.

At least 12 people were reported killed Friday by security forces, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees. The figure could not be independently verified.

Government officials lay blame for the bloodshed on what they describe as foreign-backed armed gangs, which they say have killed more than 2,000 security force members. What began as a mostly peaceful uprising has turned more violent in recent months.

In the Damascus square, several hundred men, women and children held a boisterous demonstration in support of the government, playing music and dancing. Many carried flags and wore T-shirts, sweatshirts and pins emblazoned with the president's image.

"Bashar Assad is like the sun," said Kasir Dryoub, a 60-year-old journalist in a brown tweed jacket. "He is in our eyes and in our hearts at all times."

The festive atmosphere contrasted with the demonstrators' sinister warnings about foreign conspiracies against Syria and chants in support of the shabiha.

Members of the crowd said the turnout would have been larger but some people were put off by the recent bombing in Midan, the second such attack to strike the capital since the league's mission began.

"We will not allow these conspiracies to destroy our countries," said Ramiz Khloof, a 41-year-old engineer wearing dark sunglasses. "We are ready to die, and we will not allow terrorism to desecrate this land."

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