Syrian Islamists and liberals tussle at anti-Assad rally

BEIRUT Fri Feb 8, 2013 12:27pm EST

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Rebel Islamists and liberal protesters scuffled at a Syrian rally on Friday, in a sign of the divisions in the movement trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

The confrontation, caught on video, outraged activists calling for a secular state, who said it highlighted their fears that the 22-month-old uprising against Assad is being taken over by religious hardliners.

"This is what we are scared of, we fear that this kind of fighting will happen when the regime is gone," said a moderate Islamist activist called Wessam in Damascus, one of many who rushed to protest on Syrian revolutionary websites.

Similar confrontations have occurred before but Friday's appeared to be the first of which film has become widely available.

The video footage, posted here , shows marchers in the northern town of Saraqeb. Some are waving the rebel green, white and black flag which has come to symbolize the general revolt against Assad and some the black banners of the Islamists.

After an argument, a rebel flag is grabbed and the flagpole broken. A second is seized and thrown aside.

The march continues, with rebel and Islamist flags still mingled.

But the secular slogan of protesters: "One, One, One; The Syrian People are One" - which echoed nationwide in the early days of the uprising - is drowned out by the chant: "The people want an Islamic Caliphate".

Islamists grew in influence as the protests against Assad developed into an armed insurgency. Islamist brigades are some of the most effective fighting forces in Syria and in many rebel-held areas Islamic sharia courts have been set up.

Activist Fadi Zaidan said secular campaigners would not surrender easily to religious zealotry, which he said was alien to most Syrians.

"Just like we will defeat this murderous regime and the oppression, we will defeat those who carry the imported flags, this is the revolution flag which many sacrificed with their blood to keep flying," he said.

(Reporting by Mariam Karouny; editing by Andrew Roche)

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