DAMASCUS, (AFP) — Regime forces fired on protesters who took to the streets of Aleppo on Friday, wounding several people at the biggest rally seen in Syria’s second city since a revolt erupted last year, a watchdog said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said demonstrators also suffered gunshot wounds in Douma, a key protest hub near Damascus, but did not provide any casualty figures.
“Thousands of people demonstrated in various districts (of Aleppo) despite the repression,” said Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“These are the most important events in Aleppo since the beginning of the revolt,” he told AFP in Beirut.
The government said its forces foiled a suicide bomb attack in Aleppo last Friday, a day after twin bombings in Damascus killed 55 people and wounded nearly 400. It has repeatedly blamed such attacks on “terrorists”.
And growing suspicions of an Al-Qaeda presence in Syria have further complicated matters for the fragmented opposition, which has repeatedly refuted any links to the Islamist organisation.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon said on Thursday he believes Al-Qaeda committed the Damascus attack.
“Very alarmingly and surprisingly, a few days ago, there was a huge serious massive terrorist attack. I believe that there must be Al-Qaeda behind it. This has created again very serious problems,” Ban said.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as the United States and Russia, has already pointed to an Al-Qaeda presence in the country since the revolt against his regime began.
Besides Aleppo, protests demanding the ouster of Assad also took place in Damascus, Deir Ezzor in the east, northeastern Hasaka, Homs in central Syria, and northwestern Idlib, said the Britain-based Observatory.
They came after a call by activists for Syria-wide protests under the rallying cry, “heroes of Aleppo University”, in solidarity with students in the northern city who demonstrated there the day before despite brutal repression.
On Thursday, the students were met with brutal repression by security forces, despite the presence of UN military observers, who now number more than 250 across the country out of the total of 300.
One protester was killed in a separate demonstration Thursday night in the Aleppo neighbourhood of Salaheddin, according to the Observatory, while an officer was killed in a bomb explosion in the city on Friday.
Violence persisted elsewhere, with regime forces renewing their bombardment of Rastan in central Homs province on Friday, according to the Observatory — only a day after a blistering assault on the rebel stronghold.
Heavy gunfire and shelling was reported in several neighbourhoods of Homs city, said the watchdog.
In Damascus province, heavy gunfire was reported near the town of Harasta, while the army suffered casualties in an attack on a military checkpoint at the town of Dariya.
Artillery attacks on towns have declined since the UN observer mission began deploying in mid-April, but the death toll is still high.
“It is the same strategy with a different tactic,” said one senior UN diplomat. “Instead of killing 100 they kill 60 and arrest 500.”
Rights groups and other sources say there has been an explosion in targeted killings.
The head of the UN observers’ mission, Major General Robert Mood, told reporters in Damascus his mission “will reach full operational capabilities in record time.”
Between 250 and 270 military observers out of a planned 300 are now in Syria.
“We are very serious and committed towards the innocent Syrian people, women and children to help in regaining hope and restoring life back to normal, but we should be given a real chance by the battling parties and those supporting them,” he said, quoted by the official SANA news agency.
Assad has shown no sign of willingness to start political talks, and the opposition is still too divided for negotiations, diplomats said.
Highlighting those divisions, Syrian National Council chief Burhan Ghalioun said Thursday he will step down to avert divisions within the exile opposition bloc, after activists accused him of monopolising power.
His offer came hours after the Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists on the ground, threatened to pull out of the SNC over its lack of collaboration with activists inside Syria and “monopolisation” of power.
And the UN secretary general noted that, apart from the deployment of monitors, none of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point plan has been implemented.
And, as yet, there are no other options on the table.
Most diplomats and observers say a new UN Security Council battle over Syria is likely when the UN mission’s 90-day mandate ends at midnight on July 20.
Annan plans to return to Damascus “soon” to further efforts to find a peaceful solution to the crisis, his spokesman said on Friday, without saying when.