AMMAN, (Reuters) – Syrian forces clamped down at universities after students marched for the first time in the second biggest city Aleppo during unprecedented protests against Baathist rule, activists said on Thursday.
Around 150 students marched on Wednesday in a protest demanding political freedoms on the campus of Aleppo University, rights defenders who were in contact with them said.
Baath Party irregulars quickly dispersed the students who chanted “We sacrifice our blood and our soul for you, Deraa.”
The slogan was to show solidarity with the southern city of Deraa where demonstrations against the authoritarian rule of President Bashar al-Assad and his party started three and a half weeks ago.
They have since spread to the suburbs of Damascus, the northeast, the Mediterranean coast and areas in between.
“The thugs quickly organised a pro-Assad demonstration, and sure enough, Syrian television came to film it,” one of the activists said, adding that several protesters were beaten and three students were arrested.
“The regime is aware that it cannot let campuses breath. They have seen what an emboldened student movement can do elsewhere,” the activist added.
With heavy secret police presence, preachers on the state payroll giving pro-Assad sermons and the Sunni merchant class staying on the sidelines, major protests have not spread to Damascus proper or to Aleppo.
This has denied protesters the critical mass seen in the uprisings which swept Tunisia and Egypt and toppled governments there.
In the capital, several hundred students marched in a pro-democracy protest at Damascus University for a second day.
Activists said secret police assembled at a restaurant in front of the main gate and mounted periodic forays into the campus to arrest people.
Earlier on Wednesday, hundreds of women from a Syrian town that has witnessed mass arrests of its male residents marched along Syria’s main coastal highway to demand their release.
Security forces, including secret police, stormed Baida on Tuesday, going into houses and arresting men up to the age of 60, lawyers said. The arrests came after townsfolk joined protests challenging the Baath Party, which has ruled Syria with an iron fist since 1963.
Women from Baida marched on the main highway leading to Turkey chanting slogans demanding the release of some 350 men, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Assad, who has positioned Syria as self-declared champion of “resistance” to Israel while seeking peace with the Jewish state and accepting offers for rehabilitation in the West, has responded to the protests with a blend of deadly force and vague promises of reform.
The Damascus Declaration, Syria’s main rights group, has said the death toll from the protests had reached 200.