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Syrian protesters put UN cease-fire to test

Pact holds with scattered deaths; Russians hold up observer mission

AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of people took to streets in Daraa, Syria, to protest against President Bashar Assad. Participants admitted to feeling somewhat tentative, sticking to back streets to avoid the security forces. The photo was released by a Syrian opposition network.

BEIRUT - Syrians by the thousands marched through the streets of cities and towns across the country Friday, testing a tenuous, day-old cease-fire that the United Nations struggled to shore up when the rapid deployment of international observers snagged on Russian objections.

There were scattered reports of deaths and arrests linked to the demonstrations, which had been dubbed “A Revolution for all Syrians’’ by local organizers nationwide.

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Participants admitted to feeling somewhat tentative, sticking to back streets to avoid the security forces, snipers, and the tanks that were used to suppress the peaceful protest movement and that remained deployed around many central squares and major crossroads.

But the marches were just big and exuberant enough to remind demonstrators of the mass rallies that started in March 2011 to demand the ouster of President Bashar Assad.

“We remembered the old days when we would protest in large numbers, when the whole city would protest,’’ Fares, an activist in Zabadani, near Damascus, said via Skype.

He asked to be identified only by his first name to avoid government reprisals.

In Zabadani, as in many places, residents described a heavy police presence around mosques - the weekly Friday prayer sermons have provided the kickoff for mass demonstrations since the beginning. “We didn’t gather in one point, we kept moving,’’ said Fares, with a lookout posted near security headquarters to raise the alarm when patrol vehicles roared onto the streets. “We wanted to show the world that we are adhering to our demands.’’

A video uploaded onto YouTube said to have been filmed in downtown Hama showed an extensive mob clapping their hands overhead in unison while chanting. “Oh God, let our victory be fast!’’ Another from Homs was more pointed with the crowd yelling “We want your head, Bashar,’’ among other slogans. Women and children appeared in some videos - they had all but disappeared under the onslaught that has left at least 9,000 people dead by a UN count.

Syria’s official media reported mass demonstrations across the country in support of Assad.

Activists around the country reported that some demonstrators had been hit with tear gas and others beaten, along with a few reports of renewed shelling. But the violence was far less than in recent months, when scores were reported killed daily under the pounding of heavy weaponry.

Both the lack of international media circulating across the country and the presence of security forces on the streets contradicted the six-point peace plan negotiated by Kofi Annan, the special envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported eight people killed after the demonstrations started. In addition, a lieutenant was killed and 24 other officers and a few civilians injured when a roadside bomb destroyed a bus in Aleppo, according to state-run media. It also accused “armed terrorist groups’’ - its shorthand for all opposition - with the assassination of a local Ba’ath Party official near the southern town of Daraa and the shooting death of a brigadier general overnight near Damascus.

Given that all 15 members of the UN Security Council had endorsed Annan’s six-point plan, including the deployment of UN monitors, the resolution authorizing the mission had been expected to pass easily.

But Russia, the Assad government’s most important defender, objected to an operative paragraph that would give the monitors a free hand in conducting their work, granting them abilities such as unhindered access anywhere in the country and the right to interview anyone without government interference, according to Security Council diplomats.

Vitaly I. Churkin, the Russian ambassador, said he still expected a rapid vote on the resolution, but it was unclear how quickly the differences could be resolved. Negotiations going paragraph by paragraph started Friday afternoon and no vote was expected until at least Saturday, diplomats said.

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