Dissidents Meet in Damascus, Vow 'Peaceful Uprising' for Democracy

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Syrian dissidents meeting in Damascus on Monday pledged to press ahead with a "peaceful uprising for freedom" until the creation of a "democratic state."

"There are two ways forward -- the first a clear and non-negotiable move to a peaceful transition to democracy which would rescue our country and our people," opposition activist Munzer Khaddam told the meeting.

"The alternative is a road that leads into the unknown and which will destroy everyone," he said.

Opposition figures, all independent of any party affiliation, had gathered in a Damascus hotel to discuss a way out of crisis in a public meeting they said was unprecedented in five decades of iron-fisted Baath rule.

In a document they called a "pledge," the participants vowed to remain "part of Syria's peaceful uprising for freedom and democracy and pluralism to establish a democratic state through peaceful means."

They said they rejected "resorting to security measures to solve the deep structural crisis that Syria is suffering," and condemned "any discourse or behavior that divides Syrians on the basis of race or religion."

They also rejected "any foreign intervention in Syria's affairs" and urged "the nation's interests and the freedom of citizens" be put "above any other interest" for the sake of a "free, democratic and secure" Syria.

Anwar Bunni, a prominent human rights lawyer who has served five years behind bars, said it was the "first meeting of its kind at a public venue announced in advance."

"The tyrannical regime in power must go," said opposition writer and leading activist Louai Hussein, who spent 1984 to 1991 in jail for his involvement in the banned communist party.

Michel Kilo, a former political prisoner and leading democracy activist, warned the authorities' "security solution" could lead to Syria's "destruction."

"Society must shape power and not the other way around," he said, calling for the whole structure of the regime to be uprooted.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 1,342 civilians have been killed in the government's crackdown on protesters and that 342 security force personnel have also died.

The president of the Syrian League for Human Rights, Abdul Karim Rihawi, said the meeting's aim was not intended to replace "protesters in the street."

Some dissidents who gathered in Damascus distanced themselves from opposition activists who met in the Turkish resort of Antalya this month and who included members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood as well as secular politicians.

"We have no links with the opposition activists abroad -- we too question their real objectives," said writer Nabil Saleh.

Security forces this week pressed their deadly sweep for dissidents towards Syria's borders, sending some 11,000 refugees fleeing into Turkey and hundreds more into Lebanon.