BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian security forces and students armed with knives stormed a protest march at Aleppo University early on Thursday, activists said, killing four and rounding up 200 demonstrators demanding President Bashar al-Assad step down.
The pre-dawn raid was an unusually bloody incident for Aleppo, Syria’s normally fairly peaceful commercial hub, and prompted condemnation from the White House.
Washington accused Assad of making “no effort” to honour a three-week-old United Nations truce and warned that world powers might do more to bring change to Syria if the ceasefire plan brokered by envoy Kofi Annan failed.
“If the regime’s intransigence continues, the international community is going to have to admit defeat and work to address the serious threat to peace and stability being perpetrated by the Assad regime,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
“Political transition is urgently needed in Syria.”
Western powers back the 14-month revolt but lack appetite for the kind of military intervention seen last year in Libya.
Assad has counted on support from Russia and China to block United Nations sanctions. However, Moscow and Beijing backed the ceasefire plan and Western states may hope to persuade them to agree to penalise Assad if it collapses.
On Thursday, however, the head of the monitoring mission sent to Syria under the plan said the team of U.N. observers in the country was having a calming effect.
A Reuters team in the opposition centre of Homs during the day heard continuous gunfire and the occasional sound of shelling, despite a permanent presence of monitors there.
Opposition figure Fayez Sara said secret police had raided the homes of his sons Bassam and Waseem on Thursday, continuing the detentions of tens of thousands since the uprising began. “I have no idea where they have been taken. Bassam is 37. Waseem is 26,” said Sara.
The Syrian Journalist Federation, an independent organisation, also called for the release of Mazen Darwish, a free speech campigner who has not been heard of since security police took him from his Damascus office two months ago.
Video posted on the Internet showed students in Aleppo chanting against four decades of Assad family rule but being drowned out by gunfire. Activists posted images of a dead student, drenched in blood, and what they said was a burning dormitory. Small solidarity protests broke out in other universities across Syria, videos uploaded by activists showed.
A British-based opposition group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said 28 other students were wounded overnight, three critically.
Knife-wielding youths attacked fellow students marching from their dormitories, the group said, followed by a security force raid on the latest march of a growing student protest movement.
“Freedom forever in spite of you, Assad!” chanted the young demonstrators in a video shot in the morning twilight.
There was no comment from officials and it was not possible to verify the account from the northern city, whose relatively prosperous, business-oriented population has been reluctant to join the 14-month-old revolt against Assad.
Many members of Syria’s middle classes and religious minorities are wary of the uprising dominated by majority Sunni Muslims against Assad and the elite around him, drawn largely from his Alawite minority. They fear it could descend into the kind of sectarian and ethnic bloodbath they have watched destroy neighbouring Iraq over recent years.
Assad says he is fighting foreign-backed “terrorists” and his international friends, including in Moscow, point out that rebels too have staged attacks in breach of the ceasefire.
ANOTHER TRUCE BREACH
From Aleppo, anti-Assad activists uploaded video of a burning residence block, its windows shattered. Dormitory hallways appeared to have been smashed up and men were dragging furniture outside as students screamed.
Other videos showed crowds of students leaving the campus with suitcases and bundles of clothes. Activists say busloads of security forces had taken over the dormitories, which were where students usually began the protests. Student activists said they had been ordered to move out by Thursday afternoon.
The truce has led to a small reduction in the daily carnage, mostly in cities were monitors are deployed permanently.
Mood, who is from Norway, told reporters during a trip to Hama on Thursday that state forces appeared willing to cooperate with the truce.
“There have been steps taken by the government forces on the ground that indicate a better willingness to live up to the commitments made in the agreement,” he said, giving no details.
Still, the Reuters team could hear mortars exploding in the Khalidiya neighbourhood of Homs at a rate of one a minute. They also reported the sound of heavy gunfire but did not know where it was coming from.
Explosions rocked the rebellious Jabal al-Zawiya area in Idlib and at least one woman was killed by security force fire, the Observatory said. Security forces followed up by raiding the area and arresting several men.
Clashes between rebels and the army also flared in Palmyra, home to historic Roman ruins in central Syria.
Mood, speaking in Homs later on Thursday, said that observer mission was growing at a steady pace, with a total of 50 monitors in the country which would be doubled within weeks.
“We have reinforced our permanent teams in Hama and Deraa with an extra two monitors in each city,” he said from the al-Safir hotel in Homs, where six monitors are based permanently.
Around 300 monitors will be deployed by the end of May.
In Washington, the White House spokesman expressed doubts about whether the truce would hold.
“It is certainly our hope that the Annan plan succeeds,” Carney said. “We remain, based on the evidence, highly sceptical of Assad’s willingness to meet the conditions of that plan, because he has so clearly failed to meet them thus far.”
“THEY HAVE TO SHOOT US ALL”
While the city of Aleppo itself has rarely seen clashes, it has not been free of assassinations, apparently by rebels. The Observatory reported the killing overnight of Ismail Haidar, son of the head of a pro-Assad political party.
Syria’s news agency said another state figure, national basketball team player Bassel al-Raya, died of his wounds on Thursday after being attacked by unidentified gunmen a week earlier.
At Aleppo University, activists said small protests continued to break out sporadically on the campus. “Our anger will breed more hope. If we have to go to the streets, we will,” said a student activist called Mustafa. “They can’t stop the students, even if they have to shoot us all.”
While most opposition areas in Syria have been overtaken by an armed revolt, peaceful anti-Assad protests had continued almost daily at the university in Aleppo.
It is hard to assess if those protests reflect widespread sentiment among the younger generation native to the city or whether students living there who come from rebellious hotspots like Idlib and Deraa might be taking a lead in Aleppo.
Syria’s uprising began in March 2011 with peaceful demonstrations inspired by a wave of Arab revolts against long-ruling autocratic leaders, but it has become increasingly militarised in response to Assad’s violent crackdown.
The U.N. says more than 9,000 people have died in the crackdown, while the Syrian government says it has lost at least 2,600 of its forces to “foreign-backed terrorists”.
Despite the turmoil, Syria plans to hold a parliamentary election on Monday under a new constitution which has allowed the creation of new political parities and formally ended decades of monopoly by Assad’s ruling Baath Party.
Authorities say the election is part of a reform process, but the opposition dismisses it as a sham.
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Homs, Dominic Evans and Oliver Holmes in Beirut and Laura MacInnis and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by David Stamp and Alastair Macdonald)