Damascus merchants strike over Houla killings

AMMAN Mon May 28, 2012 3:24pm EDT

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AMMAN (Reuters) - Sunni Muslim businesses closed in Old Damascus on Monday in the biggest act of civil disobedience by the capital's merchant class, a backbone of support for President Bashar al-Assad during Syria's 14-month revolt, activists said.

The show of defiance was in protest against the massacre of at least 108 civilians in the town of Houla in central Syria, [ID:nL5E8GSF7O] and follows strikes elsewhere over the previous two days, they said.

"More than 80 percent of shops have closed in some areas. The army and police are going around the old city with microphones shouting orders for merchants to re-open their shops," an activist called Nader said by phone from the area.

Sunni merchants from established commercial families have traditionally formed the core of the business community in the Syrian capital and in the commercial hub Aleppo.

Tied to Assad - from Syria's minority Alawite sect - through an intricate network of alliances forged by his late father, the Sunni merchant class were seen as crucial in preventing a collapse of the Syrian pound last year. Commercial guilds also made public endorsements of Assad.

The merchants, however, have slowly withdrawn support as the uprising, now coupled with an armed insurgency against Assad's rule, has shown no sign of abating and Western sanctions on the declining economy have started to bite.

Another activist, Amer Momen, said security police forced open dozens of shops in Old Damascus but businesses were largely shut by the nightfall.

"Many of those who were forced to open remained defiant and refused to sell to customers. We will see if this proves the beginning of a prolonged strike," Momen said.

"The merchants are a crucial power centre...They hire masses of people and are the core of the silent majority. If they no longer remain silent, then the revolt has hit a milestone."

A police raid that killed six young men on Sunday in the conservative Sunni district of Midan, just outside the old city wall, and the killing of at least one mourner during their funeral, further inflamed sentiment, opposition sources in Damascus said.

Photos and videos posted online by activists showed a row of shuttered shops on the capital's main shopping thoroughfare which dates back to Roman times.

Shops were also shown closed in Bab Sreijeh district and in some areas of the Hamidiya souk in the capital, as well as the staunchly Sunni district of Midan, the northern neighborhood of Qaboon and the southern Hajar al-Aswad district, home to tens of thousands of refugees from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

(Editing by Myra MacDonald)

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