SYRIA: Pro-regime crowds clash with protesters as scale of refugee crisis emerges
A day after Syrian President Bashar Assad promised reforms, gunfire continued to sound in several of the country's cities as pro-and anti-regime forces took to the streets in demonstrations, sometimes clashing.
Meanwhile, international relief organizations on a government-organized trip through northwest Syria found entire cities and towns emptied by the regime's crackdown on the rebellious area around the town of Jisr Shughur, according to a briefing by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees [PDF].
Thousands of Syrians, many of them government employees, joined pro-Assad demonstrations in the capital, Damascus, and other cities, vowing that the leader Assad would remain in power forever. Many said that their blood was cheap if shed as a sacrifice for their president.
The demonstrations came in the wake of Assad's speech promising reforms, dismissed as inadequate by protesters partaking in the three-month-old uprising challenging the Assad family's four-decade rule.
In one piece of amateur video from the third-largest city of Homs, (above) men, women and children protesting against the regime come under gunfire. They first hide behind buildings but reemerge. Three people were killed in the clashes, Reuters reported, citing statements by residents.
In the city of Hama, pro-regime crowds were gathered by security forces to attack protesters, said pro-democracy activists.
Checkpoints and barriers protected throngs of loyalists as they poured into the Syrian capital, one activist in Damascus reported, on condition of anonymity for fear of punishment by security forces. Employees of public and private institutions, trade unions, syndicates, industrialists, farmers and many others were ordered to participate in these rallies.
Many of those attending the pro-regime demonstrations were unhappy with the disruption of economic activity and left the rallies for coffee shops and restaurants
The uprising's momentum appeared unabated, despite the pro-regime rallies and Assad's proposals for reform, including the posting online of a draft law that could open Syria to multi-party elections.
Protesters gathered late Monday all over Damascus and its suburbs in response to the president's speech.
"They called on the president to step down," said one activist in Damascus.
In northwest Syria, a U.N. official said that villages as far as 24 miles from the rebellious city of Jisr Shughur had been emptied, according to a report by the UNHCR.
"There was no evidence of people working in the fields," the report said. "Jisr Shughur itself was almost deserted, with most shops shuttered and closed."
It added that "no displaced populations were encountered, but the fact that Jisr Shughur and surrounding villages are empty indicates significant displacement."
Another team of relief workers in southeast Turkey voiced concern that thousands of Syrian refugees streaming across the border "are severely traumatized," especially women and children.
"Syrian refugees spoke to our team about their fears and trauma," the report said.
"Many had lost family members, who they said were either killed, missing or in hiding," the report continued. "Our team heard accounts of murders, targeted assassinations, assaults, civilians getting killed in crossfire, torture and humiliation by the military. Most of these people had lost virtually all their belongings and property. In many cases their livestock were shot, fields were torched, and homes and businesses destroyed or confiscated."
-- Roula Hajjar in Beirut and a special correspondent in Damascus
Video: Images said to show protesters in Homs. Credit: YouTube
Photo: A pro-regime march in Syria's second-largest city, Aleppo. Credit: Syrian Arab News Agency