BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Security forces in Syria told striking shopkeepers on Sunday to open up their stores or they would be smashed, activists said, in the first day of a mass strike called by the opposition to support a nine-month revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
Activists are promoting the strike to encourage Syrians who may be frightened to join the uprising against the Assad family’s 41-year rule.
His forces have cracked down on a revolt that began in March with peaceful protests but has become increasingly violent. Army deserters are now fighting state security forces.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces in some neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Damascus forced shopkeepers to open their shops.
“They were taken down to their stores and ordered to open them. They refused and the police smashed open the shop doors,” said Rami Abdulrahman, head of the British-based rights group.
Syria has barred most independent journalists from the country, making it difficult to gauge the extent of participation in the strike.
But a witness who toured Damascus said most shops were closed in the main shopping street of the old Medan quarter in the centre of the capital where there has been a heavy security presence. The main souk in Old Damascus remained open.
In the southern city of Deraa, security forces and militiamen loyal to Assad broke up the strike.
“They started pulling up the shutters of shops in the main Hanano and Martyrs streets in Deraa city to force shops to open,” said one witness.
Official state media made no mention of Sunday’s strikes. Central parts of the capital Damascus and the business hub Aleppo seemed calm though there are reports of strikes taking hold in some areas on the outskirts of both cities.
“There is nothing going on,” said Rula, a schoolteacher in Damascus. “Nothing seems out of the ordinary.”
The opposition used Facebook and online video to call for an open-ended “Strike for Dignity” to begin on Sunday. Video posted on the internet and shot from moving cars showed shop after shop closed and shuttered in some places. Earlier this year, general strikes failed to take hold outside the protest stronghold of Deraa in the south.
Activists hope to build up momentum this time, by starting first with shops and small businesses, then moving to schools, transportation and public services.
“It is little by little, so people get used to it,” said activist Enana. She said around 30 percent of the shopkeepers she contacted in Damascus joined the strike.
“It can gradually take hold in Damascus and Aleppo. Today the goal is just to get some shops to close. We never expected there to be a huge response today.”
FEAR AND THREATS
But in Homs, where the violence has been heaviest, some residents said they had no choice but to work, despite sporadic gunfights and reports of kidnappings and death squads.
“I’m scared for my father. He is a government employee. It is not an option for him not to work. They will see it as a sign you are against the regime and the consequences would be bad,” said one man from Homs, who asked not to be named.
Activists say about 4,600 Syrians have been killed during nine months of protest and violent state suppression. Assad says casualties have been overwhelmingly from the security forces, targeted by “armed terrorist gangs.”
In the town of Maarat al-Noaman near Aleppo, activists said a voice over the loudspeaker of the local mosque warned residents to break their strike.
“They were threatened that if they did not come out, their shops would be broken open,” SOHR’s Abdulrahman said.
Some Damascus residents said they received a message on their mobile phone purportedly from the Interior Ministry, telling Syrians not to strike.
“It said not to be affected by some groups’ calls for a general strike. We should focus on building the country, not destroying it,” one resident said.