“Syrian police shoot nine people dead in attack on area sheltering protesters”

March 23, 2011

Syrian police launched an assault on a neighbourhood sheltering anti-government protesters, fatally shooting at least nine in an operation that lasted nearly 24 hours, witnesses said. At least six were said to have been killed in an early morning attack on the al-Omari mosque in the southern agricultural city of Deraa, where protesters have taken to the streets to calls for reform and political freedoms. An activist in contact with people in the city said police shot three other protesters in the city centre after dusk. Inspired by the wave of pro-democracy protests around the region, the uprising in Deraa and at least four villages nearby has become the biggest domestic challenge since the 1970s to the Syrian government, one of the most repressive in the Middle East. Security forces have responded with water cannon, teargas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. The total death toll now stands at 16.

Democracy activists used social-networking sites to call for massive demonstrations across the country on Friday, a day they dubbed Dignity Friday. An activist in Damascus in contact with people in Deraa said six had died in the raid on the mosque. A witness in the city said five people had been killed, including a woman who looked out of her window to see what was happening during the operation, which began after midnight and lasted for about three hours. Heavy shooting rattled the city until at least the early afternoon, when bursts of semi-automatic gunfire could be heard echoing in its old centre. State TV said an “armed gang” attacked an ambulance and security forces killed four attackers and wounded others and was chasing others who fled. It denied security forces had stormed the mosque, but also showed footage of guns, AK47s, hand grenades, ammunition and money it said had been seized from inside.

Mobile phone connections to the city were cut and checkpoints throughout Deraa were manned by soldiers in camouflage uniforms and plainclothes security agents with rifles. Anti-terrorism police wearing dark blue uniforms were also on the streets. The witness said hundreds of anti-terrorism police had surrounded the mosque. The unrest started with the arrest last week of a group of students who sprayed anti-government graffiti on walls in Deraa.

‘Many dead’ in Syrian crackdown

March 23, 2011

Human rights activists say at least 13 people have been killed in the Syrian town of Daraa, the focalpoint of a week of anti-government protests. Activists and residents said security forces opened fire on protesters outside the Omari mosque early Wednesday, after hundreds of people had gathered overnight to prevent police from storming it, and that shooting had continued sporadically over the course of the day. A rights activist also told AFP news agency that security forces had opened fire on mourners attending the funeral of those killed in Daraa. Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin, reporting from Damascus, said that fighting broke out when residents from other towns clashed with security forces as they tried to enter Daraa to help residents there. A youth activist in the Syrian capital, who remains anonymous, told Al Jazeera that his contacts in Daraa said that “dozens of people” had died in clashes. “Many there want to take down the government, and want more freedoms.” he said.

Our correspondent said there was a heavy security presence in Daraa, with the army, anti-terror police and riot police all deployed in the city. Journalists are not being allowed to visit the city, and several of those who attempted to do so last night had their equipment confiscated by authorities. Checkpoints have been set up by security forces at all entries to the city. Syria’s state-run television station reported that an “armed gang” attacked an ambulance at the Omari mosque, killing four people. The victims were a doctor, a paramedic, a policeman and the ambulance driver, according to SANA. The security forces who were near the area intervened, hitting some and arresting others,” the report said, without elaborating. Later in the day, state television showed what it said were pictures of a weapons stockpile inside the Omari mosque, including pistols, shotguns, grenades and ammunition.

The violence was condemned by Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, who called for “a transparent investigation into the killings”. A spokesman for the US state department said Washington was alarmed by the situation and urged Syrian authorities to “exercise restraint and to refrain from violence”. “We are deeply concerned by the Syrian government’s use of violence, intimidation and arbitrary arrests to hinder the ability of its people to freely exercise their universal rights. We condemn these actions,” said Mark Toner. On Tuesday, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged Syrian authorities to halt the excessive use of force. “The government should carry out an independent, transparent and effective investigation into the killings of the six protesters during the events of 18 and 20 March,” Rupert Colville, a spokesman for Pillay, said on Tuesday. “We are greatly concerned by the recent killings of protesters in Syria and reiterate the need to put an immediate halt to the excessive use of force against peaceful protesters, especially the use of live ammunition.” Colville said that the use of excessive force was a “clear violation of international law” and that perpetrators could be prosecuted.

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