AMMAN (Reuters) - Hundreds of women from a Syrian town that has witnessed mass arrests of its men marched along Syria’s main coastal highway on Wednesday to demand their release, human rights activists said.
Security forces, including secret police, stormed Baida on Tuesday, going into houses and arresting men aged up to 60, the activists said, after townsfolk joined unprecedented protests challenging the 11-year rule of President Bashar al-Assad.
The women from Baida were marching on the main highway leading to Turkey chanting slogans to demand the release of some 350 men, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“The women of Baida are on the highway. They want their men back,” the organisation said, adding that women also marched in support in the nearby Mediterranean city of Banias.
In Syria’s northern city Aleppo, around 150 students marched in a protest demanding political freedoms on the campus of the main university, human rights defenders in contact with students said.
Baath Party irregulars quickly dispersed the students who chanted “We sacrifice our blood and our soul for you Deraa,” in solidarity with the southern city where demonstrations against the Baath Party’s iron rule started three-and a-half weeks ago.
With heavy secret police presence, preachers on the state payroll giving pro-Assad sermons and the Sunni merchant class staying on the sidelines, major protests have not spread to Damascus proper or to Aleppo, denying protesters the critical mass seen in the uprisings which swept Tunisia and Egypt.
A human rights lawyer earlier said security forces had arrested 200 residents in Baida, killing two people.
“They brought in a television crew and forced the men they arrested to shout ‘We sacrifice our blood and our soul for you, Bashar’ while filming them,” the lawyer, who was in contact with residents of the town, told Reuters.
“Syria is the Arab police state par excellence. But the regime still watches international reaction, and as soon as it senses that it has weakened, it turns more bloody,” said the lawyer, who did not want to be further identified.
Assad, who tried to position Syria as self-declared champion of “resistance” to Israel while seeking peace with the Jewish state and accepting offers for rehabilitation in the West, has responded to the protests with a blend of force and vague promises of reform.
A new cabinet will be announced on Thursday, a semi-official newspaper said, to replace the government which resigned last month.
Opposition leaders said any genuine move to lift severe restrictions on freedoms would require an effective executive branch and independent judiciary to replace a powerless government structure dominated by the Baath Party.
The Damascus Declaration, Syria’s main rights group, said the death toll from the pro-democracy protests had reached 200.
Authorities have described the protests as part of a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife, blaming unspecified armed groups and “infiltrators” for the violence, and denying a report by Human Rights Watch that security forces have prevented ambulances and medical supplies from reaching besieged areas.
Montaha al-Atrash, board member of the Syrian human rights group Sawasieh, said the authorities “dream up more fantasy armed gang scenarios as soon as another region rises up to demand freedom and democracy.”
“Shame on them. They are doing a disservice to their own president. Why do infiltrators and armed groups disappear when the authorities organise a ‘popular’ pro-Assad demonstrations?” Atrash said.
“As soon as an area like Baida stands up, they attack it and put out the usual film reel of members of the security forces who died defending stability and order,” Atrash said.
Activists said Baida was targeted because its residents participated in a demonstration in Banias last week in which protesters shouted: “The people want the overthrow of the regime” — the rallying cry of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions where the leaders were toppled.
One activist said some residents of Baida had weapons and it appeared that an armed confrontation had erupted.
But Sheikh Anas Airout, an imam in nearby Banias, said Baida residents were largely unarmed and that they were paying the price for their non-violent quest for freedom.
Irregular Assad loyalists, known as “al-shabbiha,” killed four people in Banias on Sunday, a human rights defender in the city said, raising tensions in the mostly Sunni Muslim country ruled by minority Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shi’ite Islam.
The official state news agency said churches in Syria would oversee an austere Easter to honour the “martyrs” and “in an expression of national unity.”