Fierce clashes mark weekend of violence

Friday May 3 saw the highest violence in weeks in the 11-week uprising in Syria, according to local media reports.

Syria’s official media, in its account of Friday’s violence, said 20 people were killed, including police, security agents and civilians "by shots fired by armed groups”, while foreign media put the civilian death toll at 70.

Reports indicate the province of Idleb saw the highest violence over the weekend.

In Jisr as-Shugur, a town in Idleb province, Al-Watan reported intense clashes between the People’s Army – an armed force of the ruling Ba’ath Party – and armed locals opposed to the government’s handling of the crisis.

The privately-owned newspaper said one Ba’ath Party fighter, an “armed militant” and a number of security officers were killed on Saturday, after two police stations came under attack and a policeman was kidnapped.

In Hama, activists and residents told AP 34 protesters were killed during peaceful demonstrations in the city, where an uprising in the early 1980s was violently put down.

Anger is very high in the city; people will never be silent or scared. The whole city is shut today and people are calling for a three-day strike,” the activist, who gave his name as Omar, told Reuters by telephone from the city.

Funerals held on Saturday for the dead in Hama drew over 100,000 mourners, according to rights groups in the city, AFP reported.

Residents also told AP thousands of people marched in the Kurdish north-east, several Damascus suburbs, the city of Homs and the towns of Madaya and Zabadani in the west.

Syrian human rights group Sawasiah told the news agency one person was killed in Damascus. Seven people were also killed in the town of al-Rastan in central Syria, which has been under siege by tanks since May 30.

The government has yet to issue an official account of events in Hama over the weekend other than an Al-Thawra newspaper report which said 80 security officers were injured when government buildings came under attack.

Meanwhile, Syrian authorities have released a prominent activist jailed since 2008, according to AFP. Ali Abdallah, in his 50s, had criticised Syria’s ally Iran. He was a member of the Damascus Declaration.

New media law

Several prominent Syrian journalists have commented on the anticipated media law, which is currently being discussed by a special committee set up on May 24 by presidential decree.

Deputy Chairman of the Syrian Journalists Union Mustafa al-Mikdad told SANA, "We need a law that guarantees freedom of press objectively and credibly. We need a law that enables journalists to reach information and guarantees the right to publish information".

Economic magazine Al-Iqtisadi’s Editor-in-Chief Hamoud al-Mahmoud said the new law is supposed to boost media freedom, adding that it should end prison sentences for journalists and guarantee journalists’ right to be judged in “a media court”.

But Syria has come under increasing criticism for not allowing foreign journalists to report on the crisis.

For a second time Internet connections were cut in Damascus and the coastal city of Latakia on Friday, while a US-based Internet monitoring firm said about two-thirds of the country’s networks had been cut off from access to the Web, AFP said.

National dialogue

The National Dialogue Committee, chaired by Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, met again over the weekend in preparation for a conference between opposition groups and the government aimed at resolving the current crisis.

Committee member Ibrahim al-Daradji told SANA that holding a dialogue with opposition parties before elections is a “historical opportunity”.

"We face a great challenge which requires us to consult, think and listen to the Syrian masses with the aim of meeting the Syrian people’s aspirations," he added.

Al-Watan’s Ziad Haider wrote today that sources said the dialogue will include “all who didn’t participate in violence against Syria or have connections to foreign agents.”

Haidar added that because law 49 – a law that says members of opposition groups including the Muslim Brotherhood can be sent into exile – was repealed, all exiled parties can return to Syria.

He added that his sources said a number of recommendations were made by the committee members including allowing some foreign journalists into Syria to report from “certain areas”.

Opposition meets in Belgium

Around 200 activists gathered at a Brussels hotel for a two-day conference after Turkey hosted a similar meeting last week, Al-Watan reported.

The newspaper said a number of pro-government Syrian ex-pats who protested outside the Renaissance Hotel in Brussels were attacked by supporters of the conference, before the clash was broken up by Belgian police.

Following the conference in the Mediterranean resort of Antalya on Wednesday and Thursday, opposition groups urged President al-Assad’s immediate resignation and the holding of parliamentary and presidential elections within a year.

Syria Today (Syria)