Syrian forces shoot protesters, kill six in mosque

Daraa's Omari mosque

DERAA, Syria (Reuters) — Syrian forces killed six people on Wednesday in an attack on protesters in a mosque complex in the southern city of Deraa, and later opened fire on hundreds of youths marching in solidarity, witnesses said.

"They (the youths) came into Deraa from the north entrance. Bodies fell in the streets. We do not know how many died," one witness said.

"You didn’t know where the bullets were coming from. No one could carry away any of the fallen," another resident said.

Parents were seen crying in the streets during the evening, and loudspeakers from mosques around Deraa called on those whose relatives had died to go to clinics to collect the bodies.

"Peaceful, peaceful," the loudspeakers echoed — a cry taken up by protesters across the Arab world to emphasize the peaceful nature of their demonstrations against entrenched and undemocratic rulers and corruption, and demands for freedom.

Another witness saw 20 army trucks carrying soldiers heading to the city.

Deraa, on the Jordanian border, has long been a stronghold of the ruling Baath Party, which recruits cadres from the region. But in recent days it has become a focus of unprecedented protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

The shooting on Wednesday began just after midnight, when security forces attacked protesters in the vicinity of the Omari mosque in the city’s old quarter, the focal point of the Deraa protests, residents said.

Electricity was cut off and telephone services were severed. Cries of "Allahu Akbar (God is greatest)" erupted in one quarter after another as the shooting at the mosque began.

YouTube footage showed what purported to be the street in front of the mosque before the attack, with the sound of gunfire audible and a person inside the mosque grounds yelling: "Brother don’t shoot. This country is big enough for me and you."

The United Nations, France and the United States condemned the violence. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for a "transparent investigation" into the killings and for those responsible to be held accountable.

"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," said U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner.

"We call on the Syrian government to exercise restraint and refrain from violence against these peaceful protesters."

"ARMED GANG KILLED DOCTOR"

Those killed included Ali Ghassab al-Mahamid, a doctor from a prominent Deraa family who went to the Omari mosque to help victims of the attack.

"Syrian authorities think they can kill non-violent democratic protesters with impunity," exiled Syrian rights defender Haitham al-Manna told BBC television from Paris.

An official Syrian statement said: "Outside parties are transmitting lies about the situation in Deraa," blaming what it described as armed gangs for the violence.

The statement said doctor Mahamid, killed in an ambulance that had arrived at the scene to rescue the injured, was "assaulted by an armed gang."

It said the armed gang "stocked weapons and ammunition in the mosque and kidnapped children and used them as human shields." State television showed guns, grenades and ammunition it said were found in the mosque, but activists said the protest was peaceful and there had been no weapons.

An official statement said later that Assad had sacked Deraa governor Faisal Kalthoum. But a main demand of the protesters is an end to what they term as repression by the secret police, headed in Deraa province by a cousin of Assad.

The six people residents said were killed in the mosque attack brought to 10 the number of civilians killed by Syrian forces in six days of demonstrations for political freedom and an end to corruption in the country of 20 million.

The Baath Party has banned opposition and enforced emergency laws since 1963. But the wave of Arab unrest which has toppled leaders in Tunisia and Egypt presents Assad with the biggest challenge to his rule since he succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for 30 years until his death in 2000.

Assad, a close ally of Iran, a key player in neighboring Lebanon and supporter of militant groups opposed to Israel, has dismissed rising demands for fundamental reform in Syria where his Baath Party has held a monopoly on power for 48 years.

Former colonial power France urged Damascus to carry out political reforms without delay and respect its commitment to human rights.

The U.N. Office for Human Rights has said the authorities "need to put an immediate halt to the excessive use of force against peaceful protesters, especially the use of live ammunition."

REFORM PLEDGE

On Tuesday, Vice President Farouq al-Shara said Assad was committed to "continue the path of reform and modernization in Syria," Lebanon’s al-Manar television reported.

Authorities arrested a leading campaigner who had supported the protesters, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Tuesday. It said Loay Hussein, a political prisoner from 1984 to 1991, was taken from his home near Damascus.

In Damascus, authorities released six female protesters on Wednesday who took part in a silent demonstration last week supporting the release of political prisoners, lawyers said.

Assad has lifted some bans on private enterprise but ignored calls to end emergency law, curb a pervasive security apparatus, develop rule of law and freedom of expression, free political prisoners and reveal the fate of tens of thousands of dissidents who disappeared in the 1980s.

In the last four years Syria has emerged from a period of isolation imposed by the West over its role in Iraq, and in Lebanon where it stationed troops for nearly three decades, and its backing for mostly Palestinian militant groups.

The United States resumed full diplomatic relations with Syria when U.S. ambassador Robert Ford took up his post in January, ending a more than five-year break in top American diplomatic representation in Damascus.

Assad strengthened Syria’s ties with Shi’ite Iran and tried to improve relations with the United States and strike a peace deal with Israel to regain the occupied Golan Heights, lost in the 1967 Middle East war.

Limited economic liberalization in the last decade has been marked by the rise of Rami Makhlouf, another cousin of Assad, as a business tycoon controlling key companies

(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris, Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Patrick Worsnip in New York; additional reporting and writing by Khaled Yacoub Oweis.)


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