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Syrians Take to the Streets to Mourn President Assad

Aired June 10, 2000 - 12:31 p.m. ET


MILES O'BRIEN, ANCHOR: We are continuing our coverage of the passing of Hafez Al-Assad, the end of an era in the Middle East, an era some three decades old, and raising many questions about what next in the Middle East, particularly at a critical time for the Middle East peace process.

We're going to turn our attention back to Rula Amin, who has been in Damascus with us for all throughout the day and into the evening there in Damascus.

Rula, bring us up to date. The parliament had its extraordinary session and now has disbanded after its vote. What is going on right now?

RULA AMIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Correct. The news has reached all Syrians now, and people are marching -- and when I say marching, I don't mean walking, I mean running -- towards the president's house in a nasty neighborhood. I'm right there, people are chanting "Allah akhbar," which is "God is great."

There's a lot of security around, police, Republican Guards, people from that -- supporters of Dr. Bashar Assad, people who are known to support him, are taking over. They're handling the security, they're handling the press, they're trying to accommodate everybody.

People are being very emotional. They are chanting with words in support of Dr. Bashar, saying, "With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for Dr. Bashar." And they're chanting "Allah akhbar," which is "God is great." There's a lot of people who are crying, carrying Mr. Assad's pictures.

And people are still shocked. You can see the shock on all the faces, people's eyes are filled with tears. And you can tell there's a lot of tension too, I mean, tension because people are trying to take over this -- the security here is trying to organize traffic. Most of the Syrians are on the street, because there's a lot of traffic. It's hard to move around town.

But they've seen that the security are trying to accommodate everybody, including the press, ourselves, have been trying to find us ways to go around town and reach the president's house, where there's a lot of -- a big crowd that is just growing bigger -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Rula, do you get the sense that what -- everything you're seeing right now is utterly spontaneous, or is it part of an organized effort to begin the transition process?

AMIN: The crowd's reaction and the crowd's chanting and the crowd's flocking towards the president's house is definitely spontaneous. There's been no real time for the authority here to arrange much. But you can tell the transaction in terms of security. There's a lot of security on the streets. It's Republican Guards, it's Syria's elite units who are on the street taking over. They are in control.

You can see even faces that security people who are from the security who are known to be very close to Dr. Bashar, they are handling the situation, accommodate everybody, including the press, which is very -- it's a rare scene here, usually it is not a place that's easy to work for journalists. But even at this sensitive time, and it's a very tragic time for Syria, they're actually trying to over-accommodate the press and the journalists, trying to handle everything and organize everything, keep things in order -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Rula, I hear some chanting in the background. If you can still hear me, can you translate for us what they're saying?

AMIN: They are saying, "Hafez Al-Assad, he's our leader, he's our (UNINTELLIGIBLE)." And, "Bashar would never betray his word and his legacy."

O'BRIEN: Do you have any way of estimating the size of the crowd right now?

AMIN: We're seeing here about a few hundred people, but throughout our way to get to this place, we have seen a lot of people coming in, flocking in. The security are trying to maintain order, so they're not allowing everybody to come close to this house. But still, people have been fighting their way through narrow streets, around in very narrow alleys, trying to reach for the house.

I'm sorry you can't hear my voice very clearly, because the crowds are chanting, and they're very loud -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Well, Rula, to my ear, it sounds as if these chants are a big organized, the cadence going back and forth seems to be very much in unison. Is this being led in a specific way?

AMIN: We -- what we're seeing here is an average Syrian shocked by the news coming here to see it by himself. I mean, this is part of people's disbelief, they're coming here, and they want to see in their own eyes. Probably the scene of all the security on the street makes it even more believable to them.

Now, right now, I'm talking to you, and I see a lot of men sitting on the street, literally on the street, relying on electrical pole or power pole or the street, crying, sobbing. A lot of people are sobbing. The people are shocked, and a lot of people are -- people who are chanting, but you can also have people here who are just standing, looking, they're just spaced out waiting, trying to digest the news. O'BRIEN: And your sense, basically, when you look at the security apparatus, which is clearly there in place and ready for this, is that this is then well taken care of and prepared for for perhaps some time?

AMIN: It's -- well, we cannot tell if this has been prepared on for some time. We're hearing news that the president died around 1:00 local time here. We can't confirm that. But it's just that leaves little time for people to organize a lot. But you can tell that the security people are spread all over town, especially around the house where President Assad lived. He lived in a house in a very residential, peaceful neighborhood, and actually it's not even a fancy house.

But you can tell the security is very up tight and very alert, and they're very ready for any kind of -- well, we don't want to speculate, but they are ready for anything. And, you know, you can start to hear women, mothers, they're all dressed in black, everything is black, the blouse is black, the skirts are black, the pants are black, everything is black.

You can see people standing on the balconies watching over, looking over at the president's house, looking over at the crowd. The crowds here at this square where I'm standing now is very close to the president's house, and in the middle there's a big statue for President Assad in his military fatigues. And the people are crowded around it. Some of them are even trying to climb.

And they're chanting even some religious songs, saying, there's only one God. This is a very familiar chant when people die here in Islamic society, and they're raising pictures of President Assad. I hope you're still hearing me, because the chants are only getting louder -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: All right, Rula Amin, our CNN correspondent, who is in the midst of what appears to be a rather large crowd outside the residence of now the late Hafez Al-Assad, signs of mourning there that she reported, clearly signs of heavy security, indicating some preparations laid in place.

And also some utterances of support for Hafez Al-Assad's son, Dr. Bashar Assad, who is the heir apparent now, given the indications that we have received from the parliament in Syria not too long ago, changing the rules, making it possible for him to accede to the presidency perhaps as soon as June 25 when the parliament meets again.

I'll send it over to Jim.

CLANCY: All right. As we look at the situation there as you described it, Miles, the emotional outpouring, on one hand, for the passing of President Hafez Al-Assad in Syria after 30 years of rule, outside the region, others are looking in. I think it can be said that most of us who know of Hafez Al-Assad, particularly the journalists, learned much of what they know during the process of peacemaking, the peace process, of course, in place for some years. And it was an introduction into the personality and the style of Hafez Al-Assad.

I think that no one, perhaps, studied all of that more, followed that process more closely than my colleague and friend, Ralph Begleiter, who was CNN's State Department correspondent for such a long time during the peace process as it was born and as it moved forward.

He joins us now. And I know you've retired to academia now, Ralph, but your thoughts this day on Hafez Al-Assad.

RALPH BEGLEITER, FORMER CNN WORLD AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Jim, just an observation first on Rula Amin's report direct from Damascus a moment ago. It might be worth pointing out to our viewers that Syria is the kind of society in which neither Rula Amin nor anybody else in Syrian society would be able to have the kind of cellular telephone that she's obviously using for her broadcast without permission of the government.

And that although Hafez Assad's home is in a -- is a modest home in a residential neighborhood of Damascus, his official palace is an enormous, rather domineering structure that's located high above a hill above the capital city. And I mention those things just to point out that it goes with her comments about security in the city today.

The chants that we all heard, the demonstrations that we're seeing there, are ones that are very likely -- would not have taken place, or would not be taking place, without the permission of the authorities who retain control in Damascus...

CLANCY: Our apologies, we seem to have lost our contact there with Ralph Begleiter. We'll try to bring him back. He's making the point very clearly about the situation in Damascus.

Of course, there is a genuine outpouring of support, Miles. We're going to continue to follow developments that are going on in Damascus, across the Middle East, response from U.S. officials, all of that as we continue our special coverage of the passing of Hafez Al- Assad.

O'BRIEN: We'll check in at the State Department, and we're told the president has made a statement. We expect that to be said to us momentarily. We will bring that to you as soon as we get it. Stay with us as our continuing coverage continues.




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