Syrian security forces shot dead seven people during clashes in two cities between President Bashar al-Assad’s loyalists and protesters demanding his removal, a leading activist said.
The violence followed rallies organised by authorities in several cities in support of Assad, whose 11-year rule has been challenged by a three-month popular uprising, prompting him to promise reforms on Monday, which were dismissed by protesters and world leaders as inadequate.
Activists said people were killed when army and security forces intervened on the side of Assad’s supporters in the city of Homs and the town of Mayadeen in the tribal Deir al-Zor province, 40 km (28 miles) east of the provincial capital, near the border with Iraq’s Sunni heartland, Reuters reports.
Ammar Qurabi, head of the Syrian National Organisation for Human Rights, said Assad loyalists, known as shabbiha, shot at protesters in Homs, Hama and Mayadeen, killing at least seven civilians and wounding 10.
“It is difficult to say who started first, but the army’s armoured personnel carriers drove through the (anti-Assad) demonstration firing at people. One is confirmed killed but seven more people suffered serious wounds,” a resident of Mayadeen said.
Two residents in Homs said security forces fired at protesters who had staged a demonstration to counter a pro-Assad rally backed by secret police and ‘shabbiha’.
Witnesses in Deraa said security forces opened fire to disperse several thousand protesters in the city’s old quarter who took to the streets in reaction to a pro-government rally in the Mahatta area which they said employees and army forces in civilian clothes had been ordered to attend.
Syria has barred most international journalists, making it difficult to verify accounts from activists and officials.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said Syria had agreed to give the humanitarian agency greater access to civilians and areas caught up in the conflict.
State television showed tens of thousands of people in central Damascus waving flags and pictures of Assad who announced an amnesty for people who committed crimes up until Monday, the day of his speech. It was the second amnesty to be announced in three weeks.
After the first, authorities freed hundreds of political prisoners but rights groups say thousands still languish in jail and that hundreds more have since been arrested in an escalating crackdown they say has killed 1,300 civilians in three months.
Authorities say more than 200 police and security forces have been killed by armed gangs.
Activists said that public workers were required to take part in the pro-Assad rallies under threat of dismissal from their jobs, along with the security police and their families.
After Monday’s speech, activists said Syrian forces extended their security sweep near the northern border with Turkey to the merchant city of Aleppo.
Central neighbourhoods in Aleppo have been largely quiet, with a heavy security presence and the political and business alliance intact between Sunni business families and the ruling hierarchy from Syria’s minority Alawite sect.
Syria, a country of 20 million, is mainly Sunni, and the protests demanding political freedoms and an end to 41 years of Assad family rule have been biggest in mostly Sunni rural areas and towns and cities, as opposed to mixed areas.
“Road blocks in Aleppo are noticeably more today, especially on roads leading north towards Turkey and towards the east. I saw military intelligence agents arrest two brothers in their 30s, apparently just because they were from Idlib,” a resident of Aleppo, who owns an import business, told Reuters by phone.
He was referring to the northwestern province where troops and tanks have been deployed in towns and villages for the past 10 days to quell protests, according to witnesses.
Tens of students at Aleppo University were arrested on Monday and 12 people, including a mosque preacher, were detained in the nearby village of Tel Rifaat, halfway between Aleppo and the Turkish border, following protests, witnesses said.
Protesters at the university had criticised Assad’s speech, only his third since the uprising, inspired by protests across the Arab world that ousted rulers in Tunisia and Egypt.
Speaking at Damascus University, Assad reiterated a commitment to “national dialogue” and promised new laws on the media and parliamentary elections but protesters denounced the speech and Washington demanded “action, not words” from Assad.
The military assault has sent thousands of refugees streaming over the border into Turkey, which has become critical of Assad, having previously backed his drive to seek peace with Israel and improve relations with the United States.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday it was right to press Damascus to end the violence but said interference in the country’s affairs was not the solution.
A veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, Russia has withheld support for a Western-drafted Council resolution condemning the violence in Syria.
“Interference from outside does not by any means always lead to the resolution of a conflict,” Putin told a news conference with his French counterpart Francois Fillon. France has been among the most vocal critics of Assad’s actions.
At the same time, Putin said, “there is no doubt that it is necessary to apply pressure on the leadership of any country where mass disorder and particularly bloodshed is occurring.”