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Students 'armed' with pencils beaten in Syria, activist says

By Joe Sterling and Salma Abdelaziz, CNN
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Residents flee Syrian violence, death
  • NEW: Activist's wife says he was arrested Wednesday on his way to work
  • U.N. report says Iranian weapons making their way to Syria
  • Gunfire reported in Banias amid mass arrests
  • At least 776 protesters have been killed in Syria, human rights group says

(CNN) -- Syria weathered more anti-government ferment over the past day as the embattled regime girded for another round of nationwide protests Friday.

Security forces rounded up a leading voice for human rights Thursday, hours after a rally erupted at Aleppo University, in the heart of Syria's second-largest city.

The government has been cracking down on protests over the past two months in Daraa, Homs, Banias and other cities.

Protesters plan another round of demonstrations Friday, with rallies expected across the country after Muslim prayers.

"Despite overwhelming international condemnation, the Syrian government continues to exact brutal reprisals against its own citizens, including, tragically, the deaths of hundreds of Syrians since March," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Greenland's capital of Nuuk on Thursday.

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She accused the Syrian government of engaging in unlawful detention and torture and denying medical care to the wounded. "Now, there may be some who think that this is a sign of strength, but treating one's own people in this way is, in fact, a sign of remarkable weakness," she said.

The presence of thousands of demonstrators at the college is significant because large anti-government demonstrations have yet to occur in the country's two major power centers: the capital Damascus and the metropolis of Aleppo.

There had been a small demonstration at the college in recent weeks, but the protest at Aleppo University late Wednesday was larger.

It began with a small group chanting anti-government slogans. As the demonstrators marched through the campus, more and more students joined, and the group swelled to several thousand, a political activist in Aleppo said.

They called for "freedom" and chanted "with our blood, with our souls we will sacrifice for you, Daraa," an expression of solidarity with the people of the city where anti-government protests began two months ago.

A group of 50 pro-government protesters joined by hundreds of security forces confronted the students and beat them with sticks and batons, the activist said, adding that the demonstrators were dispersed and several people were injured.

"We were only armed with our notebooks and pencils," the activist said.

"In Syria, freedom has been made illegal," the activist said. "This is a word and concept that is not allowed in our country."

Students were planning another demonstration Friday afternoon, though the campus was surrounded by army and police.

Joshua Landis, associate professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma and an expert on Syria, said the protest movement has heretofore been unsuccessful in reaching the center of the more affluent urban areas like Aleppo.

It would be significant, he said, if unrest were to take hold in those areas.

Upper-middle-class, technically savvy and idealistic students staging a protest in the center of Aleppo or Damascus, as people did this year in Egypt's Tahrir Square, would promote their message and generate broader support, Landis said.

But many people in Aleppo and Damascus fear that they would have something to lose in an uprising, he said, and that's why there have been few displays of discontent.

"Probably the parents of all these kids do not want them to go out there," Landis said. "The kids do. They want freedom. They've got Arab Spring fever."

He said the parents of many of the students may dislike the regime but are invested in what they have.

Many people in Aleppo have gained from globalization and a stengthening of economic ties with Turkey. Many see instability in places like Iraq and Lebanon as chilling possibilities for their own futures and are concerned that the uprising has no central leadership, Landis said.

"The kids of these middle-class people hear their parents curse the regime," he said. "They curse it, but they are in bed with it."

In Banias, troops backed by Syrian security forces carried out arbitrary mass arrests in several neighborhoods Thursday, a witness said. Heavy gunfire could be heard as authorities went from building to building, rounding up men and searching homes, the witness told CNN, which has not been allowed entry into the country.

About two hours later, a group of about 200 women gathered to demand the release of their male relatives and other political detainees, the witness said. The woman were surrounded by at least 400 soldiers and security forces who dispersed them by shooting into the air, the witness said.

"Banias is a ghost town," the witness said. "Everything is closed, and the city is deserted. All the men have been rounded up and detained in the soccer stadium."

The witness' account was corroborated by Ammar Qurabi, chairman of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria. "We do not know if these men are being tortured, but allegations of maltreatment have surfaced," he said.

At least 776 protesters have been killed in Syria, including 19 on Wednesday, five of them in the industrial city of Homs, according to the Syrian group.

The regime has blamed armed groups for the violence and has reported the deaths of security personnel. Demonstrators have blamed the killings on the government.

There have been many arrests. Security forces in Homs on Thursday took human rights activist Najati Tayara into custody at his home, according to Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Tayara has gained attention for his accounts on Arab satellite channels of the military crackdown in Homs.

"He was a free voice inside Syria," Abdul-Rahman said. "He would go on air with his real identity and real personality and tell people what was actually happening in Homs."

Arrested Wednesday was Wael Hamada, another prominent human right activist, his wife told CNN's "AC360."

Rayzan Zaytouni said that the 35-year-old telecommunications specialist and political activist had been in hiding in recent weeks but had gone Wednesday to his job, where he was arrested. "I don't know what exactly happened yesterday, and why he went there," she said.

She said authorities had tried twice before to arrest him, but had failed to find him.

Zaytouni, who is also a human rights activist, said she too had been in hiding "a few weeks now," changing addresses every few days.

"They cut the Internet connections in different locations where I was," she said. "They cut my mobile phone. It's like they surround you from all sides."

Zaytouni said she wanted to be identified by name in order to give credibility to her account. "It's so important because the whole time the official media says, 'Those eyewitnesses are a lie, those eyewitnesses don't use their names. All videos we put on YouTube is fake.' We want to say: No. We are real people. We have names. We have families who got arrested, who got tortured. In spite all of that, we want to keep going. Nothing will stop us."

She said Syrians -- including women and children -- were being killed daily for having done nothing more than protest peacefully.

"Everybody should know what is going on and should know that those people want one thing: their freedom -- to start a new future with freedom and democracy and dignity."

Clinton, in Greenland for a working session of the Arctic Council, said the events in Syria show that the country can't return to the way it had been.

She said President Bashar al-Assad is facing "increasing isolation," and the United States will work with its allies "on additional steps to hold Syria responsible for its gross human rights abuses."

"Tanks and bullets and clubs will not solve Syria's political and economic challenges. And relying on Iran as your best friend and your only strategic ally is not a viable way forward. Syria's future will only be secured by a government that reflects the popular will of all of the people and protects their welfare."

Clinton's reference to Iran came after a document compiled by a U.N. panel of experts and leaked Thursday said Iranian weapons banned for export under Security Council resolutions were making their way to Syria.

The report said the Syrians have denied the allegations.

CNN's Rima Maktabi contributed to this story.

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