In Bahrain, 10,000s march for reform and freedom for political prisoners
1954 GMT: Breaking news from Bahrain - activist Zainab AlKhawaja has been arrested, apparently while trying to visit her father in the hospital:
1908 GMT: This video is destined to be iconic. The UN monitors are set to visit the Idlib town of Kafer Takharim, and the the Syrian military pulled out today so as not to be seen by the observers. As the soldiers evacuate, this young man waves a pre-Baath party flag, the flag of the Syrian opposition, right in the face of Assad's tanks and soldiers.
Kafer Takharim has an iconic identity among the opposition because it was the first town to be permanently occupied by the Syrian opposition fighters, who forced the Assad military out in early February and held the town for more than a month:
The Syrian National Council demands the UN observers to head to #Homs right now because the regime army is committing massacres against the civilians in Al-Khalidiyah neighborhood.
If true, the SNC has plenty of reason to call for such an action. EA sources say that perhaps hundreds of shells are falling on the central districts of Homs every hour, and casualties would be much higher if many residents hadn't already fled.
However, most of those remaining cannot flee, and there are reports that perhaps thousands of Syrians are injured, and trapped, in some areas of Homs.
This video was reportedly taken in the central Hamidiya district:
1755 GMT: Syrian State News Agency is now saying that a total of 18 soldiers were killed in a series of attacks, including 10 in a bomb blast in Quneitra, in the Golan Heights. 5 were also reportedly killed in a bomb blast in Karak, Daraa province, and 3 were killed elsewhere.
Meanwhile, a reader and commenter translates a video, reportedly a statement from a Free Syrian Army commander, saying that the FSA has won several battles in the villages of Jabal el Zawiya, in Idlib province, and has stopped the advance of the Syrian army in the region. Unfortunately, because there are usually few citizen journalists in the area, the news of a major FSA victory cannot be verified.
Since the deadline for ceasefire last Thursday, the Syrian regime has not let up its attacks. However, in the last several days more and more reports of FSA reprisals or defensive actions have been reported, indicating that Assad's failure to withdraw its soldiers has potentially led to a wholesale breakdown of the ceasefire agreement in many areas.
15 martyrs in Homs, 10 martyrs in Idlib; most of them are in Rami village,7 martyrs in Damascus "Daf Shouk,Tadamoun,Medan", 7 martyrs in Aleppo; most of them are in Bab town,5 martyrs in Damascus Suburbs " Douma and Aqraba",4 martyrs in Bokamal 2 martyrs in Daraa.
As we can see, many of the deaths are being reported in Damascus, its suburbs, and Aleppo, as well as places we've become accustomed to seeing deaths in recent weeks - Homs, Idlib, and Daraa. What's the takeaway? As we predicted earlier, many of these deaths are the result of Assad security forces opening fire on large protests.
This graphic video, also posted by the Local Coordinating Committees of Syria, shows a protester in Damascus, shot by security forces, being dragged off by his fellow protesters. Another video reportedly shows security opening fire on a group of protesters in the suburbs of Damascus.
1721 GMT: Activist Maryam Alkhawaja, the daughter of human rights advocate Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, brings more disturbing news after her father --- on Day 72 of a hunger strike --- said he was no longer drinking water:
Earlier today, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja had reportedly asked for his lawyer so he could write his will. The Danish ambassador had persuaded the activist, who is a dual Danish-Bahraini national, to take water and juice earlier this month in the hope of a resolution.
1711 GMT: Amidst the declared campaign of the hacktivists of Anonymous to disrupt the Bahraini regime and the Formula 1 Grand Prix (see 1622 GMT), it appears that the official websites of Bahrain's Ministry of Interior and of the police force have been knocked off-line.
Greetings from Anonymous
For over one year the people of Bahrain have struggled against the oppressive regime of King Hamad bin Al Khalifa. They have been murdered in the streets, run over with vehicles, beaten, tortured, tear gassed, kidnapped by police, had their businesses vandalised by police, and have tear gas thrown in to their homes on a nightly basis.
Still the regmine persists to deny any meaningful reform and continues to use brutal and violent tactics to oppress the popular calls for reformation. Not only is the Human Rights situation in Bahrain tragic, it becomes more drastic with each passing day. For these reasons the F1 Grand Prix in Bahrain should be strongly opposed. The Al Khalifa regime stands to profit heavily off the race and has promised to use live ammunition against protestors in preparation. They have already begun issuing collective punishment to entire villages for protests and have promised further retribution "to keep order" for the F1 events in Bahrain. The Formula 1 racing authority was well-aware of the Human Rights situation in Bahrain and still chose to contribute to the regime's oppression of civilians and will be punished.
We demand the immediate release of human rights worker Abdulhadi Alkhawaja who has spent over 70 days on hunger strike. He has committed no crimes and is being punished by the regime for advocating people's basic human rights. Free him and all other political prisoners in Bahrain. End torture. Deport all mercenary police and stop the use of tear gas against civilians.
We Do Not Forgive. We Do Not Forget. Expect Us.
0x0 was and still is here. Join #OpBahrain
Several other F1 related websites have reported DDOS attacks, and the Bahraini Ministry of Interior website has periodically failed to load today.
1552 GMT: How large are the protests in Bahrain?
Reports of up to 50,000 people on the streets of Bahrain— Kevin Eason (@easonF1) April 20, 2012
If true, that would be nearly 10% of the population - and looking at the pictures and videos, it's not an unreasonable estimate.
1542 GMT: Back to Bahrain - multiple EA sources are reporting that the Costa Coffee, on the outside of the Country Mall on the Budaiyah Highway, has been attacked by teargas.
Looking at the video, many police jeeps arrive at the scene. A few protesters throw stones, but then they run off. Meanwhile, the police respond by shooting teargas into the seating areas of the coffee shop - something a responsible police force would never do. First of all, what purpose is the teargas serving? Secondly, teargas poses a suffocation and fire hazard when used indoors, especially in crowded and enclosed areas where people cannot escape:
1528 GMT: Despite the reports that many areas of Homs are once again being shelled, particularly the Khalidiya district, the people of the El Waer district have come out in extremely large numbers to host a jubilant protest:
Also, each week protesters across the nation settle on a single name for all of the protests (how do they do this? They vote on Facebook!). Today's title: "We will win and Assad will be defeated."
1509 GMT: Turning back to Syria, the headline remains the large protests. Out of the many photos in this gallery, We found this picture particularly noteworthy. The people in Dael, Daraa, have a message: The UN Observers Bring Death.
They would know. Dael, a suburb of the birthplace of the uprising, Daraa, has been the target of heavy-handed raids, machine gun fire, and even periodic shelling, and is routinely burying its martyrs. Since Kofi Annan announced that he had reached an agreement with the Assad regime, Dael, and surrounding towns, have been the subject of daily attacks, attempts to shut down the opposition before the arrival of UN monitors. Apparently, those efforts have not worked.
1458 GMT: The tale of two pictures in Bahrain - the first gives us another look at just how large the crowds are today (remember, Bahrain is a country of about 550,000 citizens, so these crowds are truly massive):
The second picture shows pellets, the remains of shotgun rounds that police allegedly used against protesters. There are more reports of live fire today, though it is unclear whether these pellets were shot today or sometime earlier:
1446 GMT: An activist sends more reports of teargas and police attacks on protests in Bahrain:
1439 GMT: Riot police in Bahrain have fired on a large protest in a central area, many sources report:
1431 GMT: Bahrain human rights activist Abdulhadi AlKhawaja has called his family and told them that he is ready to die in prison. According to his daughters, he has stopped taking water, and his last message to the people of Bahrain was that, should he die, they need to continue to peacefully resist the regime. Zainab AlKhawaja, his daughter, relays her last conversation with him:
Urgent: My father called now, he asked us to try and get him an urgent visit by his lawyer to write his will. He said, if they won't allow the lawyer to see him, he has three things he would like everyone to know:
1st: he is completely convinced in what he is doing, and that he has chosen this path & wud choose it again if time goes back.
2nd: he asks that nobody attempts to go on a similar strike til death.
Finally my father said "if I die, in the next 24 hrs, I ask the people to continue on path of peaceful resistance..."
My father continued "... I don't want anybody to be hurt in my name"
My father has stopped drinking even water since yesterday.
As my father finished saying his will to us, the line was cut. He did not say goodbye
1424 GMT: The headline in Bahrain so far today - absolutely massive protests:
However, there are already reports of violence:
12 martyrs in Homs, 9 martyrs in Idlib; most of them are in Rami village, 7 martyrs in Damascus "3 in Daf Shouk, 2 in Tadamun, 2 in Midan", 4 martyrs in Aleppo; most of them are in Bab town, 2 martyrs in Douma in Damascus Suburbs, a martyr in Daraa, and a martyr in Bokamal.
Looking at the breakdown, we see patterns that suggest that protesters, not opposition fighters, in key cities like Damascus, Aleppo, and Daraa, have paid the heaviest price. While there are usually reports of casualties in areas like Homs, and the countryside of Idlib, Daraa, and Aleppo, these other areas reporting casualties, many for the first time in a week or more, suggests that the reason for the deaths is the unusually large crowds.
In other words, just looking at these numbers, coming in fairly early in the day, suggests that the ceasefire has broken down even further. Also, reports of violence and casualties continue to come in (this latest tally is 50 minutes old).
1355 GMT: James Miller takes over. Thanks to Scott Lucas for doing an excellent job getting us started today. It's going to be a busy day...
This update comes courtesy of a faithful reader, Catmari, who left the link in the comments. I'll echo her sentiment:
What is the point of having UN monitors in Syria if they are not going to monitor Friday protests, the biggest day of protests every single week?
The preliminary agreement states that observers will have freedom to go anywhere in the country by foot or by car, take pictures, and use technical equipment to monitor compliance with a shaky truce between government forces and opposition fighters.
But in a move likely to anger the opposition, the head of the team currently in Syria said they will not patrol on Fridays, the day of the week when the biggest numbers of protesters normally takes to the street.
"We don't want to be used as a tool for escalating the situation. So we will avoid going on patrols on Fridays," Colonel Ahmed Himmiche, from Morocco, said.
What we are seeing so far today could turn out to be the largest show of protests in recent memory, perhaps since the early days of the Syrian uprising (that may be hyperbole, but by the end of the day it may be the headline). The Syrian opposition is putting the "ceasefire" to the test - if Assad is really dedicated to the ceasefire, he will have to hear the voices of the Syrian people on his streets, in nearly every city and town in nearly every region of the country. How will the UN know, conclusively, if the Syrian government has allowed those protests to take place unless the monitors are on the streets on Fridays?
It seems that the regime has been given a pass today. Without the monitors, the risk to the protesters in the street greatly increased. This is just another example of how botched Kofi Annan's plan has been in Syria. Since Annan announced his peace plan, the death toll is Syria has skyrocketed. Now, his monitors are not even monitoring to see whether Assad maintains his end of the bargain. It's too early to tell if this announcement will encourage violence today, but making this announcement may endanger next week's protesters, as well.
1317 GMT: Gunfire at demonstrators in the Bab section of Aleppo:
Syrian troops patrol the Jobar section of Damascus:
1247 GMT: In Egypt, thousands have gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square to protest the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces: "In Syria, the people are besieged by Bashar Assad and here we are besieged by Egypt's military rulers."
1240 GMT: The size of the defiance in Syria today --- tens of thousands in the Damascus suburb of Douma:
Kafarsita in Hama Province:
Rastan near Homs:
The Damascus suburb of Barzeh:
1227 GMT: The protesting crowd in the Bestan al-Qasor section of Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city:
Zabadani, near Damascus:
State news agency SANA had earlier reported that three security personnel were killed in Hama and Daraa and two civilians slain in Aleppo and Daraa.
A mass rally in Amouda in northeast Syria today:
You guys want a story and it's a good story and if there isn't a story you make it up like usual, Nothing changes....
There are many more countries higher up the priority list that you should be writing about. Go to Syria and write about those things because it is more important [than] here.
1203 GMT: The Guardian posts a Skype interview with Bahraini economist and activist Ala'a Shehabi about the situation today --- "there are police cars everywhere" --- and in the future: "I hope activists can think of new ways to protest and get their message across without resorting to more militant means. I also hope the government allows people to protest peacefully without having to suppress them violently using stun grenades, birdshot and teargas":
1045 GMT: Demonstration in the Asali section of the Syrian capital Damascus today:
And a rally in Idlib Province:
1020 GMT: Claimed footage of shelling of the Khalidiya section of Homs in Syria this morning:
1003 GMT: Journalist Ian Parkes adds to reports of one racing team restricting its activities in Bahrain:
Force India are to play a limted role in second practice later today ahead of this weekend's Bahrain Grand Prix due to safety concerns.— Ian Parkes (@ianparkesf1) April 20, 2012
The team apparently wants to ensure it can return to its hotel in daylight.
On Thursday, a car with a group of Force India personnel was caught up in clashes between police and protesters. Two members of the team left the country.
Earlier today, Force India deputy team principal Bob Fernley insisted, “Everything’s fine for us, we are all in good shape. The guys are happy, no issues,” as drivers Nico Hulkenberg and Paul Di Resta participated in the first practice session.
A Reuters reporter counted 79 security vehicles, including an armoured patrol car, in the 32 kilometres (20 miles) between central Manama and the Formula 1 circuit.
0955 GMT: And now news that CNN --- following the Bahraini regime's refusal to let journalists such as those of Sky News and Associated Press into the country --- is being evicted:
Was informed that our #Bahrain visas would not be extended. Our crew had to leave the country yesterday.— Frederik Pleitgen (@fpleitgenCNN) April 20, 2012
CNN's report, "On Patrol with Bahrain's Riot Police", before the crew left yesterday:
0909 GMT: Jane Ferguson of Al Jazeera English reports on continued political tension in Yemen after the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh:
0900 GMT: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing sources on the ground, claims that a mortar round is hitting the Khalidiya section of Homs every five minutes and that there is fighting in Qusair near the Lebanon border, with the regime sending reinforcements.
0709 GMT: A series of messages from journalist Kate Walker at the Bahrain Grand Prix:
If this is reform, it tinkers around the edges....The game changer would be the release of prisoners, including 21 activists. That is not going to happen anytime soon.
Britain and America make clucking noises but are just as cynical as the Bahraini royal family itself. Strategic alliances trump human rights. What is the difference between Bahrain and Syria? In two words, Saudi Arabia, which sees the trouble on its doorstep as its own Cuba.
0625 GMT: Ian Parkes of Britain's Press Association reports from the Bahrain Grand Prix:
Ramped up security today at the circuit. Heavy police presence, a small tank, increased security checks, metal detectors, you name it!— Ian Parkes (@ianparkesf1) April 20, 2012
0515 GMT: We begin with the simple note that, irrespective of any proclamation of "order", protests are escalating in Bahrain and Syria.
In Bahrain, practice will take place today for Sunday's Formula 1 Grand Prix, but we suspect that attention will be away from the track, throughout the island. The regime's attempts to portray that nothing is out of the ordinary --- from the Video Contest held by the Information Affairs Authority to the assurances of security to the exclusion of foreign journalists from the kingdom --- has unravelled throughout the week. As Jane Kinnimont notes in a sharp commentary: "[Bahrain] can no longer claim to be the oasis of liberalism and tolerance that it once sought to brand itself as....The F1 media spotlight will only highlight the ongoing troubles Bahrain faces in the absence of any serious attempts at political compromise."
Then there is Syria. Thursday was the quietest day, in news and in casualties, since the supposed "cease-fire", but only in relative terms. Thirty people still died. One hundred unidentified corpses were buried in Homs, with 300 more to be laid to rest, according to the Local Co-ordination Committees of Syria. The regime continued its shelling of parts of that city.
And the protests continue to build --- last night in Kafarsouseh: