March 28, 2011 / 9:43 PM / 8 years ago

Syrian opposition figures urge peaceful change

AMMAN (Reuters) - Leading Syrian opposition figures issued a declaration on Monday denouncing sectarianism and committing to non-violent democratic change in the wake of disturbances in the port city of Latakia.

President Bashar al-Assad dispatched troops to Latakia late on Saturday in a sign of doubt about the ability of security police to maintain order there. Latakia’s population is a potentially explosive cocktail of Sunni Muslims, Christian and Alawites, who constitute Assad’s core support.

The Latakia violence, coinciding with a spread of unprecedented pro-democracy unrest in Syria, killed at least four people, according to opposition activists. Syrian authorities said attacks by “armed elements on the families and districts of Latakia” resulted in 10 deaths.

Latakia has calmed but the bloodshed has raised the spectre that the unrest that originated in the mostly Sunni south of Syria, could take on sectarian overtones. Syrian officials have described the protests against 48 years of Baath party rule as a “conspiracy” and a “project to sow sectarian strife.”

“The diversity of Syria must be respected. The Syrian people, as a whole, are under repression,” said the declaration signed by Sunnis, minority Alawites and Christians with a history of struggle against the Baath monopoly on power.

“The signatories pledge to work towards building a national democratic state where everyone is treated equally regardless of their allegiances, without discrimination against any sect.”

The statement was issued in Damascus and emailed to Reuters abroad.

Signatories included Syrian writer Michel Kilo; Ahmad Tumeh, a notable from the agricultural region of Raqqa; leading economist Aref Dalila; prominent journalist Fayez Sara; and Fawaz Tello, who was jailed from 2001 to 2006 for his role in what became known as the Damascus Spring.

That earlier movement for political freedoms was put down by Assad a year after he succeeded his father, the late Hafez al-Assad, who died in 2000.

Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis; editing by Mark Heinrich

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