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Syria (and Beyond) LiveBlog: An Armed Insurgency Builds

Footage of security forces suddenly firing --- those posting the clip claim it was a rocket-propelled grenade --- at a rally in Homs Province in Syria last night

See also Syria 1st-Hand: Observations from Damascus "The Subtle Signs of Turmoil"
Egypt Feature: The Political Battle Beyond Cairo
Tuesday's Syria, Bahrain (and Beyond) LiveBlog: Declaring Reform

2100 GMT: Bikyamasr has more details on the food poisoning suffered by protesters at #OccupyCabinet --- the group that is gathered outside the cabinet building to protest against the Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. According to their reporters, two of whom were victims as well, the perpetrator is being singled out a woman who showed up before the cases broke out and offered protesters hawawshi, a popular Egyptian meat dish. 

Hundreds started vomitting and dozens have been hospitalized. However, Bakyamasr denies that anyone has died so far. Full report here

1930 GMT: Reuters has raised the number of people killed in today's violence across Syria to 30. Their report on Syria also covers the army's assault on the city of Hama to break a 3-day long strike called "The Strike of Dignity". Soldiers fired machineguns and burnts shops that had been closed down in solidarity with the strike. At least 10 people were killed as a result of the assault. 

1900 GMT: Echoing EA's coverage (see 1429 GMT), The Washington Post reports that at least 25 people have been killed in Syria today, including 8 pro-government soldiers. The soldiers were killed in Al-Sharna in Hama provinces by defectors from the army in retaliation for attacks against civilians. The number from today could rise as more reports stream in. 

1800 GMT: There's news coming out of Cairo that over 50 people at the protest in front the cabinet building have gotten food poisoning. Many tweeps are reporting that the food delivered may have been the work of a single saboteur. Here's Egyptian tweeps' take on it: 

Farah Saafan

Number of poisoned protesters increases to 50 after eating food distributed by anonymous volunteers at #OccupyCabinet via @Tahrir_News

Adham Hafez:

Journalists, photographers please try to go to #occupycabinet or Kasr Aini hospital to document the poisoning cases of protesters. #tahrir

Hawawshi (meat) of the poisoning cases of #occupycabinet were wrapped in Fish-restaurant packages, already dodgy enough to raise doubts.

Mohamed Abd El-Hamid:

More people being carried by the second to the ambulances. The one inside the street transferring one to the hospital now. 

Mohammed Yahya

Protesters are blaming #SCAF for food poisoning and v angry. I have a feeling this'll get worse over the night #tahrir #OccupyCabinet

Protester tells me they are locking the place down and will search any1 coming in to protect the little children in #tahrir & #OccupyCabinet

Many ambulance cars taking food poisoned protesters to Asr el Einy hospital now

1750 GMT: Graphic video from Idlib shows the bodies of three Syrians killed in protests. Viewers must be warned, the scenes may be too much for some. 


1730 GMT: Josh Shahryar takes over LiveBlog from the James Miller.

The Syrian economy is no doubt taking a big hit because of the almost 9 month long protests. How bad of a hit? The Daily Star reports on the devaluation of the Syrian pound: 

The official rate has fallen from 47 pounds to the U.S. dollar, where it stood when pro-democracy protests began in March, to around 54 pounds as authorities lowered the rate to narrow the differential with the black market. The biggest single adjustment, from 50 pounds, occurred on Dec. 5.

On the black market, the pound has slipped even further, with the rate now hovering around 59 pounds. A low of 62 pounds was hit briefly just after the Arab League slapped economic sanctions on Syria last month.

What about the $17 billion in foreign currency reserves? Well, that may be shrinking too - fast: 

Between March and September, the central bank supplied dollars relatively freely to keep the exchange rate largely stable; bankers estimated it spent an average $500 million every month.

But this depleted reserves, and if they fall too far -- perhaps, judging by the experience of Egypt this year, to near three months' worth of imports -- the market may worry that the central bank is running out of money and increase the pressure on the currency. Syria's monthly imports of goods and services this year are expected to average about $1.9 billion, according to the International Monetary Fund.

How long the Syrian government can keep this up is a different question, but what's obvious is that the Syrian economy might not be able to. 

1543 GMT: Several activists report a massive protest at a funeral for a martyr in Ta'um, Idlib. Now, we recieve this video, with a sign that carries today's date:

1534 GMT: The LCCS has once again raised today's death toll, now reporting that 27 have died, "including two women and a child.9 martyrs in each of Hama and Homs, three martyrs in Idlib “Maarmasreen”, two martyrs in both Damascus and Daraa, and a martyr in both Zabadany and Qamishli."

In Homs, the biggest stories are the shelling of of the Qusoor District and the snipers who have shot protesters in Bayada, confirming the scene in our last video (Map of Homs).

1511 GMT: Every day, without fail, we post news of deaths in Homs. It's so routine, that we often focus on reports of violence elsewhere, as they tell us more about what is happing, systemically, in Syria.

However, we also see scenes like this, protests in the Khalidiya district in Homs:

However, these protests are hardly away from the line of fire. Activists report that, at a similar protest in the Bayada district, where a sniper opened fire and killed this man. In what is becoming a new pattern in Homs, activists report that the sniper then would not let the protesters retrieve the body. These men, hiding behind the piles of trash that have not been collected in months, drag the body back to a side street, at great personal risk.

The man who has been shot is Ruslan Abdul Hai.

1453 GMT: As 2011 comes to a close, awards and honors are being distributed, and today has been a good day for Middle Eastern pro-democracy advocates. The big news this morning was that Time Magazine has named "The Protester" as the 2011 "Person of the Year," praising the protest movement that started in Tunisia and spread to much of the rest of the region, but also protesters in Europe, China, and the Americas.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament has named 5 "Arab Spring" activists as the recipients of the 2011 Sakharov human rights prize, including Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian man who self-immolation sparked the pro-democracy protests:

Tunisian fruitseller Mohamed Bouazizi won the award posthumously for freedom of thought, while a Syrian pair, lawyer Razan Zeitouneh and cartoonist Ali Farzat, were prevented from attending "for obvious reasons", according to EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton on Tuesday.

The other winners were Egypt's Asmaa Mahfouz and Libyan dissident Ahmed al-Zubair Ahmed al-Sanusi.

Parliament president Jerzy Buzek hailed "five courageous women and men who represent the Arab Spring.”

1437 GMT: This video was reportedly taken today in Khirbat al Ghazalah, in Daraa province. It shows the general strike - empty streets, closed shops, ect. But that's not what is impressive.

Look at the amount of damage done to these buildings. We've seen similar damage in places like Homs, places that have repeatedly been shelled by the Syrian military or shot up by heavy vehicle-mounted machine guns:

1429 GMT: In Syria, today's death toll seems to be rapidly skyrocketing. According to the LCCS, 26 people have died so far at the hands of the Syrian security forces, " including two women and a child.9 martyrs in Homs, 8 martyrs in Hama, three martyrs in Idlib "Maarmasreen", two martyrs in both Damascus and Daraa, and a martyr in both Zabadany and Qamishli."

Meanwhile, defectors have launched an attack against an army convoy in Hama, killing 8, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights. The attack was reportedly in retaliation for the civilians who were killed in Khattab (reported earlier):

The defectors attacked four military vehicles at an intersection near the village of al-Asharneh, on the outskirts of Hama, the London-based observatory said.

It was the second attack this week carried out by army defectors to avenge the killing of civilian, the group said. Last Thursday, an armed group killed seven soldiers in an attack on their military truck in the northern province of Idlib in retaliation for the killing of 11 people there the same day.

1421 GMT: One of EA's correspondents in Bahrain reports on today's rally:

"Thousands went marching in front of the UN after the opposition parties call [for a rally] under the title "Bahrain with No Human Rights". People were calling for freedom and Democratic reformation.

"They talked about the suffering of the medics and educational staff... and, of course, they never forget about the martyrs, their families, and [political] detainees."

The Bahraini flag, modified with protest slogans and a victory symbol:

1454 GMT: An activist shares this video - new "new normal" in al Harak, Daraa:

1447 GMT: This video is interesting. Reportedly taken today, it shows Barzeh, another Damascus suburb, entering the "second phase" of the general strike "for dignity." The streets are empty, the shops are closed, the walls covered in graffiti... and something in the street is on fire. We're unsure if that is a roadblock erected by protesters, or perhaps anti-regime posters being burned by security forces, and the camera cuts as it approaches the scene.

1436 GMT: As we've posted in our separate feature, while protests in Damascus are rare, many of the people who work in Damascus live in the suburbs. As such, protests such as these are always relevant. This first video shows a protest in Zabadani, outside Damascus:

This video is even closer to the center of the capital, the important suburb of Irbeen:

While we cannot verify the validity of the videos, the signs in the second video carry today's date, both videos match today's weather reports, and activists have also reported large protests in both locations.

What is worrying, however, that the videos are often posted hours after protests (though sometimes they are posted faster), but just an hour ago the LCCS had this report from Zabadani:

Damascus Suburbs: Zabadany: Hearing of big explosions with shooting from heavy weapons, many wounded fall and news about clashes between the Free army and the security forces who tried to break the shops that participate in the strike

1421 GMT: The Guardian has spoken to an activist in Hama, Syria:

Speaking via Skype from Hama, Waled, a 31-year-old medical supplier, said:

In the last few days they started to bring troop reinforcements and tanks around Hama and in Hama. We don't know exactly what's happening, but there are more forces coming.

We hear from other activists in Idlib and Homs that there are more reinforcements and more tanks coming to their areas. We are expecting an attack on the three areas of Idlib, Homs and Hama.

Waled told the Guardian that, although he was fearful of what would happen, the opposition movement was too strong to stamp out.

Waled also confirmed that the FSA is increasing activity in and around Hama:

Waled said the Free Syrian Army was increasingly active around Hama, but not strong enough to take on the might of the regular army.

Defected troops have tried to protected shops attacked by the army after they were closed as part of a national strike, he said.

"Sometimes they protect the city, sometimes they retreat from the city," he said.

He claimed the FSA was strong in rural areas but not in the city itself. They have many weapons, including RPGS, but not tanks, he said.

None of this is particularly revelatory, but it is en eyewitness account that confirms many of the accounts that we've been receiving this week. What is new, however, is that Waled has also heard the rumors that the FSA has attacked military vehicles near Hama, and Waled also reports that 5 civilians have been killed when security forces, for unknown reasons, opened fire on their car in Khattab:

"They were civilians, two of them had jobs in Khattab," he said.

"Sometimes when they [the security forces] lose patience they start to target everything, especially groups of young men who look suspicious. Maybe they asked them to stop and they didn't."

1413 GMT: Once again, the death toll in Syria at this early hour is very high. The LCCS is reporting that 15 have died today, including a woman and a child, 5 people in Hama, 5 in Homs, 2 in Damascus 2 in Daraa, and 1 in Qamishly."

Meanwhile, Syrian State TV, SANA, is claiming that "terrorists" killed 7 soldiers or police today across the country:

Seven army, security and police martyrs on Wednesday were escorted from Tishreen and Homs Military Hospitals and Sweida National Hospital to their final resting place in their home towns and villages.

The martyrs were targeted by armed terrorist groups while they were on duty in Homs, Hama and Daraa.

The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights has confirmed for Al Jazeera that the Free syrian Army did attack military vehicles near Hama.

1406 GMT: Fathers and children protest against Syrian President Bashar al Assad in Ad Darbasiyah, Hasaka Governorate, today:

1354 GMT: Activists have posted pictures from today's rally in Manama, Bahrain. The first photo was taken during a speech by the nephew of Karim Fakhrawi, who was killed while in police custody in April:

James Miller takes the liveblog.

1320 GMT: In Bahrain, protesters have gathered outside the United Nations building in Manama, declaring, "Bahrain with No Human Rights". A photograph of Dr Fatima Haji, one of 20 doctors and nurses given 5- to 15-year sentences, with her plea, "Free Medics So We Can Treat People in Need":

1305 GMT: A military court has amended the sentence imposed on Maikel Nabil from three years to two on the charge of "insulting the [ruling] Supreme Council of the Armed Forces". He has no right of appeal.

Nabil was taken to a military prison in March after he wrote a column criticising the army and accusing it of abuse of detainees.

1300 GMT: Ahram Online is providing updates on Egypt's second round of voting for Parliament, as 180 seats in the lower house --- 60 to be filled by individuals, 120 among party lists --- are contested by 3387 candidates in nine governorates.

So far, the pattern of the first day of the first round is being replicated: significant turnout with some irregularities because of late opening of polling stations and claims of illegal campaigning.

A queue of voters in Mohandeseen:

1250 GMT: Mohammad Saleh, a former political prisoner in Syria, has spoken about the escalating conflict in Homs, saying that four of his relatives in have been targeted because they were Alawites, the same sect as President Bashar al-Assad: "The violence by the regime has provoked counter violence. But a crime is a crime and it has to be condemned."

Saleh, who spent 12 years in jail for his opposition to the regime of Assad's father, the late president Hafez al-Assad, continued, "I went to jail for a civilised Syria, not to replicate the values of the regime."

Saleh said that a 60-year old relative was killed by armed Sunnis as he loaded a van with belongings to escape from the Madina al-Shababiya district of the city. The driver of the truck was killed, a youth who was helping them was injured, and Saleh's nephew was abducted.

Saleh helped draft a declaration last month by Burhan Ghalioun, president of the main opposition Syrian National Council, which called for the calming of sectarian tensions between Alawites and Sunnis in Homs. He said the entire opposition must take a firm stance against sectarian killings: "Those who do not condemn the crimes may just as well be partners in the crimes."

1005 GMT: Bahraini authorities have blocked access to the website of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights:

0945 GMT: A civilian court has dropped two key charges --- inciting a protest and gathering illegally --- against activist/ and blogger Alaa Abd-El Fattah.

Abd-El Fattah has been detained since 30 October, charged after clashes in Cairo three weeks earlier in which 28 people, mainly Coptic Christian marchers, died. His case was moved earlier this week from a military "security" court.

“This was a good step, since the military cannot be an adversary and an arbitrator at the same time,” said Taher Abu Zeid from Abd-El Fattah's defence team.

0835 GMT: The website of Syria's Aleppo Airport was hacked last Friday and is still off-line.

0717 GMT: In Bahrain, opposition societies organised a gathering on Tuesday which was "like a festival", according to an EA eyewitness, with only one speech and bands playing national songs:

The largest opposition group, Al Wefaq, put out a statement declaring that the regime is not serious about reform, with no easing of human rights violations despite the criticisms in the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry.

Later in the evening, security forces dispersed protests in a number of Bahraini villages.

0715 GMT: The second round of Egypt's three-stage Parliamentary election begins today, with more than 19 million people eligible to vote.

In the first round of the ballot, for the Lower Parliament, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party led with about 36% of the vote, the Salafist Nour Party was second with more than 20%, and the secular Egyptian Blog was third.

0705 GMT: There were demonstrations on Tuesday in Benghazi, Libya's second city, by both supporters and critics of the head of the National Transitional Council. Backers chanted, "People want Mustafa Abdel Jalil," chanted more than 1000 people at Tahrir Square, the centre of protests against Muammar Qaddafi from February.

Hundreds of unhappy protesters gathered for the second day at Shajar Square, complaining about the NTC's lack of transparency and Jalil's willingness to forgive pro-Qaddafi fighters.

On Monday the NTC announced that Benghazi would be the future economic capital of the country.

0650 GMT: In Syria, another day where activists claimed the death of more than 35 people in violence --- within that all-too-familiar pattern, however, there was a distinct development.

Some of the deaths occurred in a surge of military activity in the south, part of the cycle of punishing villages who display resistance, but most of the fatalities came in northwest Idlib Province. And there the clashes were not just of regime forces lashing out at the population, but of a growing, armed insurgency striking at President Assad's troops. Activists claiming that at least seven of those troops were killed early Tuesday, and later in the day there were reports of a firefight between the Free Army and the security forces. James Miller summarised:

In Idlib, we've been seeing more defections, and reports that weapons smugglers are helping to arm the Free Syrian Army. The regime's military has repeated made blitz-style attacks on prominent towns in the region, but today the Free Syrian Army appears to be launching a concerted defense of several of the villages around Ma'arrat Masreen.

Another development to watch: there were sizeable protests across the country throughout the day and into the night. The centre of Damascus continued to be sheltered from the demonstrations; however, in Aleppo, the second city, it appears that there was a significant march at the University:


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