As Fighting Continues, Syrian Merchants Protest by Closing Their Shops

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BEIRUT, Lebanon -- As Syrian government forces pressed their counteroffensive on the outskirts of Damascus and a car bomb exploded in the central city of Homs, merchants around the country closed their shops over the weekend in an attempt to keep the nonviolent protest movement alive, despite the intense fighting.

On Saturday, usually a busy shopping day, rows of shops were closed in towns north and south of Damascus, the capital; in the southern city of Dara'a; in Hama in the north; and along major streets in Raqqa, an eastern city, video uploaded on the Web by government opponents showed.

The protest took place despite more than two days of Internet failures that slowed the spread of the call for action. Called the "Strike of Pride," it was announced on Facebook and other social media sites beginning a week ago, as well as by activists who dropped leaflets and spray-painted the news on walls.

An organizer wrote in one announcement that although some have questioned the effectiveness of the nonviolent struggle, "I think it can express the pain of the entire Syrian people."

Yet violence continued, with a car bomb exploding in Homs, killing 15 people and injuring 24, according to the government news agency, SANA.

Activists and residents said the bombing took place in the Malaab neighborhood, which was considered one of the few safe places to go outside and to shop.

Residents had turned the area into an outdoor market, and there was a supermarket near the bomb site. Residents said civilians were injured. Video of the scene showed men shouting and bringing in a fire extinguisher as thick black smoke and flames billowed from a car on a narrow street lined with apartment buildings and bougainvillea bushes.

Such bombings have divided the antigovernment movement since Syria's 20-month uprising morphed into a civil war that has killed an estimated 40,000 people.

What began as a peaceful protest movement turned violent after the government fired on unarmed demonstrators. Some fighters said they carry weapons to protect protesters; army defections have followed suit; and as jihadi groups have taken a more prominent role in the conflict, car bombs have proliferated.

At first they targeted government buildings. Bombings have increased in residential areas. They appear to target members of minority sects who have been less involved in the Sunni-led uprising -- such as in Jaramana, south of Damascus, last week, and last month in Mezze 86, which is home to many military families and Alawites.

The fighting -- and its increasingly sectarian cast -- has divided the activists who spearheaded the early civil disobedience.

Last month, a well-known opposition activist, Rima Dali, was arrested with several friends after they stood in the central old market of Damascus wearing wedding dresses and holding banners that called for an end to the violence and declared that Syria belonged to all Syrians.

The call to join this weekend's protest urged Syrians to unite against "the killing machine" of the government and to show the unity of "those seeking to stop the killing and destruction."

It exhorted people of various professions to join the protest.

"Dear Trader, dear industrial worker," the notices said, "proclaim loud in the face of the tyrant that one drop of blood from a Syrian father is more dear to you than evanescent money. Dear driver, show your refusal to stand for hours just to get fuel and cross checkpoints."

The videos provided scattered evidence of the shop closings, so it was hard to gauge their scope. In several towns, the streets were shown to be full of people out for Saturday strolls, and a few street stalls sold kerosene and other items despite the closings. In other areas, shopping districts were nearly abandoned.

In Hama, block after block of shops were closed behind corrugated metal gates. On wide streets, in narrow alleys and in a covered market, it was so quiet that the footsteps of the videographer echoed off the walls, and birds could be heard. Another video showed men in camouflage uniforms standing outside shops as gunshots echoed nearby; a description posted online said the men were "regime thugs" breaking the locks of shops to end the strike, a tactic that pro-government militias have used before.

In Raqqa, where the fighting has not been as intense as elsewhere, video taken from a car showed shops closed along both sides of a major street named for a coup on Feb. 23, 1968, by a faction of the Baath Party that would later be led by the Assad family. Shops appeared closed even near the town's central square, with its distinctive clock tower.

One video said to be taken in Hajar al-Aswad, a suburb south of Damascus where fighting has raged for the past week, showed a woman and two men strolling down a quiet street of closed shops and dropping handfuls of white leaflets.

On Sunday, government forces continued to attack rebels, supported by helicopter gunships and airstrikes to the south and east of the capital in an apparent effort to push back rebels who had made gains in the area in recent days.

"The Syrian Army has opened since Thursday morning the gates of hell to all those who even consider getting close to Damascus or of attacking the capital," the pro-government newspaper Al-Watan reported, according to Agence France-Presse.

As airstrikes shook the strongly antigovernment southern suburb of Daraya, the newspaper added, "Daraya will be secured in the coming hours."

Hania Mourtada contributed reporting from Beirut, and Hala Droubi from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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