Syria: Women march to demand release of men held in security swoop

The Guardian

Hundreds of Syrian women have marched along the country's main coastal highway to demand the release men seized from their hometown, human rights activists said. Security forces, including secret police, stormed the town of Baida, going into houses and arresting hundreds of men after locals joined anti-government protests, according to the activists. Video showed a large crowd, most of them women, marching along the road leading to Turkey as they chanted: "We want the men of Baida."

Women demonstrated in support in the nearby Mediterranean city of Banias, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said 350 men were arrested in Baida. An activist on Twitter put the number at 800 and said she would release the names of 111 of those detained soon.

A human rights lawyer in contact with people in the town told Reuters that security forces had arrested 200 residents in Baida, killing two people.

"They brought in a television crew and forced the men they arrested to shout 'We sacrifice our blood and our soul for you, Bashar'," the lawyer said. "Syria is the Arab police state par excellence. But the regime still watches international reaction, and as soon as it senses that it has weakened, it turns more bloody."

Tensions have been raised in the mostly Sunni Muslim country ruled by minority Alawites – an offshoot sect of Shia Islam – since protests against President Bashar al-Assad began.

The Damascus Declaration, Syria's main rights group, says the death toll from the demonstrations, now in their fourth week, has reached 200. Assad has responded to the demonstrations with a combination of some concessions – offered to conservative Muslims and Kurds – and force.

Assad's government has described the protests as part of a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife, blaming unspecified armed groups and "infiltrators" for the violence, and denying a report by Human Rights Watch that security forces have prevented ambulances and medical supplies from reaching besieged areas.

Montaha al-Atrash, board member of the Syrian human rights group Sawasieh, said: "As soon as an area like Baida stands up, they attack it and put out the usual film reel of members of the security forces who died defending stability and order."

Activists said Baida was targeted because its residents participated in a demonstration in Banias last week in which protesters shouted: "The people want the overthrow of the regime" – the rallying cry of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions where the leaders were toppled.

One activist said some residents of Baida had weapons and it appeared that an armed confrontation had erupted. But Sheikh Anas Airout, an imam in Banias, said Baida residents were largely unarmed.

Protests against 48 years of autocratic Ba'ath Party rule erupted in the southern city of Deraa near the border with Jordan, and expanded to the suburbs of the capital Damascus, the north-east, the coast and areas in between.

But attempts to spread the protests to Damascus proper or to Syria's second city have failed so far.

Haroon Siddique, Wednesday 13 April 2011 11.26 BST