Syrian troops enter key port city of Latakia after 12 killed in protests

Elsewhere in Syria, anti-government protesters torched a police station and tore down a statue of the former President Hafez Assad, father of current President Bashar Assad.

Bassem Tellawi/AP
Pro-Syrian President Bashar Assad protesters, shouts pro-Assad slogans as they hold his posters, in Damascus, Syria, on Saturday. Protesters set fire to offices of the ruling party in southern and western Syria on Saturday, burning tires and attacking cars and shops in a religiously mixed city on the Mediterranean coast.

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The Syrian Army deployed troops to the country's primary port on the Mediterranean on Saturday night after a day of violence that saw anti-government demonstrators and government officials trading accusations over the deaths of at least two civilians.

Witnesses, speaking anonymously for fear of reprisal, said that troops arrived in Latakia under cover of night and established a presence in key areas of the port city, reports the Associated Press.

Activists say the two civilians were killed when Syrian security forces opened fire on demonstrators, but government officials claim the two were shot by renegade snipers, reports BBC News.

Syrian presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban told the BBC that "armed groups," rather than Syrian forces, were causing the violence in Latakia. Ms. Shaaban also accused Sheik Youssef al-Qaradawi, a Qatari cleric who condemned the violence against Syrian protesters Friday, for inciting the violence.

The Syrian government said Sunday that 12 people, including security forces, residents, and two members of shadowy "armed elements" died in the Latakia violence.

Protests across the country

Anti-government protests continued across Syria on Saturday, reports Agence France-Presse.

Protesters in the city of Tafas torched a police station and the local headquarters of the Baath Party, which has ruled Syria since 1963. And in Deraa, the city along the Jordanian border which has been the epicenter of Syria's recent anti-government protests, some 300 men tore down a statue of former President Hafez Assad, father of current President Bashar Assad.

AFP adds that in an effort to placate the protesters and show evidence of promised reform, the Syrian government released 260 political prisoners Saturday. Abdul Karim Rihawi of the Syrian League for the Defence of Human Rights told AFP that the detainees were mainly Islamists, along with 14 Kurds.

Social media's role

Saturday's deadly violence in Latakia is only the latest in Syria, with activists placing the number of protesters killed at more than 100. And much like the previous upheaval across the Middle East, social media is proving a means to show evidence of crackdowns against protesting civilians. The Telegraph describes video shot during a government crackdown Friday in Deraa that shows several bodies in the streets as protesters seek cover from machine-gun fire. Some of the video, which contains graphic content, is available at Al Jazeera English's live blog for Saturday.

The Syrian government has come under increasing criticism abroad for violence against its citizens.

Deutsche Welle reports that European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton condemned Syria's crackdown. "Despite the latest announcement of improved political freedoms and restraint, violent repression of demonstrators has continued. I strongly condemn the brutal repression, including the totally unacceptable use of violence and live ammunition, which must cease now," she said.

And The Daily Star of Lebanon, a nation in which Syria has long played a major role, ran an editorial calling for President Assad and the Baathist regime in Syria to follow through on their promises to reform.

If the latest batch of promises by the Syrian regime proves to be a set of cosmetic measures, and not sincere moves toward reform, the violence will merely wane for a while, and then explode again, with even worse consequences.

If Syrian officials were content to talk about external conditions in the past, as a justification for “taking it slow,” they should read the conditions in the Arab world and come up with a new orientation – it’s time to move quickly, and seriously, in the direction of reform.

And the "virtually unprecedented" upheaval in Syria leaves the Israeli daily, Haaretz, speculating that it could be the beginning of the end of Assad's regime.

The scope of the weekend's demonstrations is not entirely clear, but in Syria's major cities, unlike in Daraa, the numbers apparently have not approached what was seen in Tunis, Benghazi, and Cairo in recent months. The demonstrations Friday centered on protests against the recent deaths in Daraa rather than on demands to remove Assad's regime from power.

On the other hand, the unrest in Syria may be a first step on the path toward deposing the Syrian leader. The new developments are virtually unprecedented; until two weeks ago, the regime had not been faced with open protest other than in the Kurdish region in the north.

Haaretz notes that the sorts of conciliatory gestures Assad has been making, such as the release of political prisoners, are similar to those made by the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt before they fell.

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