AMMAN (Reuters) – Protests against President Bashar al-Assad re-erupted across Syria on Friday despite a military crackdown and a pledge that Assad’s tycoon cousin, an object of hatred for demonstrators, would renounce his business empire.
Activists said tens of thousands of people rallied in the southern province of Deraa, cradle of the three-month revolt against Assad’s rule, the Kurdish east, the cities of Homs and Hama north of Damascus, and suburbs of the capital itself.
Friday Muslim prayers have been a platform for the biggest protests leading to the most bloodshed, in the uprising inspired by Arab revolts which overthrew the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia and have challenged autocrats across the Middle East.
Residents said two northern towns remained encircled by army units, five days after the military retook the rebellious town of Jisr al-Shughour and sent thousands of refugees streaming across the nearby border into Turkey.
Syrian rights groups say 1,300 civilians and more than 300 soldiers and police have been killed since the protests broke out in March against 41 years of rule by the Assad family, and 10,000 people have been detained.
Assad has responded to the unrest with a mix of military repression and political gestures aimed at addressing protesters’ grievances.
On Thursday state media said his billionaire cousin Rami Makhlouf, a symbol of elite corruption and unaccountability for the protesters, was quitting business and handing proceeds to charity.
Makhlouf controls a string of businesses including Syria’s largest mobile phone operator, duty free shops, an oil concession, airline company and hotel and construction concerns, and shares in at least one bank.
He has been subject to U.S. sanctions since 2007 for what Washington calls public corruption, as well as EU sanctions imposed in May, but repeatedly maintained that he was a legitimate businessman whose firms employ thousands of Syrians.
Activists said Makhlouf’s step by itself would not curb the momentum of protests. They said Assad, who has only spoken twice in public since the uprising started, was expected to address the country soon and might unveil further measures.
PRESSURE ON ASSAD
Assad faces international condemnation over the violence, as well as the first signs of cracks in his security forces after a clash in Jisr al-Shughour earlier this month in which the government said 120 security personnel were killed.
There have been no mass desertions from the military, but analysts say it is unclear how long the loyalty of rank and file Sunni Muslim conscripts would last if the crackdown on mainly Sunni protesters by Alawite-commanded military forces continues.
Assad’s family is Alawite.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he had spoken to Assad and urged him to halt the violence.
“I again strongly urge President Assad to stop killing people and engage in inclusive dialogue and take bold measures before it’s too late,” Ban told reporters in Brazil.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Friday that France and Germany agreed to lobby for stronger sanctions against Syria, which already faces targeted U.S. and European Union sanctions against its leadership.
“France, hand-in-hand with Germany, calls for tougher sanctions against Syrian authorities who are conducting intolerable and unacceptable actions and repression against the (Syrian) population,” he said after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
France has so far been unable to rally sufficient support at the U.N. Security Council for a resolution condemning Assad’s crackdown, in part because of reluctance from veto-holding council members China and Russia.
A witness in the Damascus suburb of Irbin said protesters burnt a Russian flag on Friday in protest at Moscow’s stance.
Syrian forces have surrounded two nearby towns on the main north-south road linking Damascus with the second city of Aleppo. Villagers have been streaming out of the towns, fearful of an assault similar to the one witnessed in Jisr al-Shughour.
The state news agency has said army units deployed near Khan Sheikhoun and Maarat al-Numaan to ensure the highway’s safety.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu held talks with a Syrian envoy on Thursday in which he called on Damascus to end the violent crackdown and pass democratic reforms.
Turkish officials said the number of refugees who had crossed over from Syria had reached 9,600, and another 10,000 were sheltering by the border just inside Syria.