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Syrian Troops Fire on Demonstrators in Several Cities

March 25, 2011 at 6:23 PM EST
The Syrian government faced its strongest challenge in years as protests escalated and government troops opened fire on demonstrators in several cities. In the city of Daraa, where protests grew all week, witnesses said up to 50,000 people flooded the city square chanting and waving Syrian flags. Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JIM LEHRER: Syria was gripped today by a sweeping display of opposition. It brought a deadly response.

Jeffrey Brown has that story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Syrian government declared today the situation is completely calm in all parts of the country. But amateur video posted on YouTube and elsewhere told a very different story, even tonight in a Damascus bazaar. Altogether, it marked a major escalation in the unrest and the strongest challenge to the Syrian regime in years.

Cellphone images from the city of Daraa captured scenes of chaos, as protesters ducked behind walls to escape being shot by soldiers.

(GUNSHOTS)

JEFFREY BROWN: The protests in Daraa had been growing for a week, and troops started shooting today, after crowds set fire to a statue of the late President Hafez Assad. Witnesses reported at least two people were killed and many wounded.

Earlier, up to 50,000 people, according to one witness, had flooded the city’s main square, chanting “freedom” and waving Syrian flags. Video had already emerged from Daraa showing bodies at a gas station and people running for cover under heavy gunfire from government forces.

Elsewhere, smoke billowed into the sky over demonstrators in the coastal city of Latakia. Security forces opened fire there, too, and activists reported four people killed. Thousands more took to the streets in the central city of Hama, raising fists in the air and chanting “freedom.”

The protests in Hama came nearly 30 years after the Syrian army crushed a rebellion there by the Muslim Brotherhood, killing as many as 40,000 people. In turn today, supporters of current President Bashar Assad flooded streets in Damascus, standing atop cars, carrying posters of Assad and shouting, “Only God, Syria and Bashar.”

In a bid to defuse tensions, Assad, who took power 11 years ago after his father’s death, has moved to increase wages for state workers. And the government promised yesterday to consider lifting the state of emergency in effect since 1963, with its restrictions on political freedom.

But in Washington today, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney condemned the regime’s use of force.

WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: We urge upon the Syrian government that they pursue a nonviolent path, that they pursue political dialogue, because the future of this region depends upon — the stability and future of this region depends upon the decision by governments to listen to their people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yesterday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, the Syrian army should take a lesson from how the army in Egypt refused to attack its own people.

Meanwhile, a leading Syrian opposition figure today called for the international community to intervene to — quote — “stop the massacres.”