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Pressure on Syria's Assad as dissidents target capital

As they have done every Saturday for the past three months, the survivors buried their dead, lowering the corpses of men and boys killed by Syria's security forces into hastily dug graves.

Their grief undimmed, even though they have carried out the exercise many times before, the mourners vowed to avenge the dead by toppling President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator.

With a reported death toll of more than 1,300 since the uprising began 103 days ago, the mass funeral has become a familiar ritual in virtually all of Syria's 14 provinces.

Yet while the rest of the country seethes, two parts seem to have escaped the unrest: the central districts of Syria's biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo.

Yesterday morning, as funerals were under way on the city's outskirts, tens of thousands thronged the centre of Syria's capital to express their devotion to Mr Assad. The faithful waved the portraits of the president and hailed him a reformer and champion of the people. Similar demonstrations have taken place in Aleppo, Syria's second city.

But in a worrying sign for Mr Assad, there is growing evidence that the protest movement is closing in on his two principal strongholds.

At a pro-Assad demonstration witnessed by our special correspondent last week, the regime's careful choreography was disrupted as pro-democracy supporters stormed the scene. The flag waving of the faithful collapsed as the security forces gave chase.

The scuffle represented only a blip, yet the shock on the faces of Mr Assad's supporters was telling. This was not supposed to happen in the heart of Damascus, which is protected by a heavy force of secret policemen and informers.

After mosque prayers last Friday, when the biggest demonstrations traditionally take place, at least 20 protesters were killed across the country. For the first time, most of the fatalities were on the outskirts of Damascus. The capital's residents are aware of the rising tension. "Damascus is not the place it was even a week ago," one, named Rami, said. "It might appear like everything is normal, but under the surface it is different. There is some craziness in the atmosphere."

Such "craziness" is beginning to show itself even at social gatherings. Our reporter witnessed a birthday party end abruptly as friends turned against each other, erupting in rival political chants.

Conversations in the city's boutique bars are dominated by one subject. Many know people who have been arrested, beaten or killed.

"Many Christians are with Bashar because in school everyone is taught to fear the Sunni extremists," said one Damascus resident. "But yesterday I visited a Christian friend who was attacked leaving a mosque by policemen. They asked him why a Christian was attending a mosque. He answered that his politics wasn't about Christian or Sunni. They cracked his head open. Now he can't walk."

Aleppo, too, is stirring. A week ago the city recorded its first fatality after a university student was beaten to death by security forces during an anti-government protest.

Few believe Mr Assad's fall is imminent. But his forces are overstretched as they battle opponents in the north and struggle to contain protests elsewhere.

If Damascus and Aleppo were to experience unrest on the same scale of other Syrian cities, then, say observers, the chances of Mr Assad surviving the challenge to his 11-year rule look increasingly remote.

Meanwhile, on Syria's western and north borders, hundreds of people -- some with gunshot wounds -- continue to spill into neighbouring countries. Most arriving at the border decided to come after Syrian forces opened fire on protesters at demonstrations across Syria last Friday. Syrian activists said 20 people were killed, including two children aged 12 and 13.

Most of the deaths were said to have occurred in the Barzeh neighbourhood of the capital, Damascus, and in the suburb of al-Kaswa.

A prominent Syrian opposition figure, meanwhile, said some 200 regime critics and intellectuals would meet in Damascus tomorrow to discuss strategies for a peaceful transition to democracy.

The one-day gathering will be the first such meeting of Damascus-based regime opponents, many of whom have long been persecuted by the Assad government. Dissident Louay Hussein said Syrian authorities had not objected to the meeting. It will come one week after Mr Assad, in a nationally televised speech, spoke of convening his own national dialogue to discuss political reforms.


Sunday Independent