25 Syrian protesters killed by security forces
Damascus, March 24, 2011
The main hospital in the southern Syrian city of Deraa has received the bodies of at least 25 protesters who were killed in a confrontation with security forces, a hospital official said on Thursday.
Security forces opened fire on hundreds of youths at the northern entrance to Deraa on Wednesday afternoon, according to witnesses, in a dramatic escalation of nearly a week of protests in which at least 32 civilians have been killed since Friday.
However, human rights activists said more than 100 people have been killed by police gunfire in Deraa.
On Thursday Syrian soldiers wielding AK-47s roamed the streets of the southern city. Secret police and special police units wearing all black have been more visible in Deraa since the protests erupted last Friday.
The army has so far taken a secondary role -- mostly manning checkpoints -- in confronting demonstrations that erupted last week in Syria's agricultural heartland, demanding political freedoms and an end to corruption.
Witnesses said hundreds of soldiers patrolled Deraa's main streets as heavy rain fell, with scores manning intersections to prevent public gatherings. Travellers on a main highway near Deraa said they saw convoys of trucks carrying up to 2,000 soldiers heading to Deraa on Wednesday night.
Syria's Baathist rulers have a history of crushing opposition violently in their 48 years in power. In 1982, President Bashar Al-Assad's father, Hafez Al-Assad, sent troops to the conservative religious city of Hama to crush the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, killing thousands.
Syria's Alawite rulers run a country which is majority Sunni. Protesters in Deraa, a mainly Sunni city, have shouted slogans against the government's alliance with Shi'ite Iran, breaking a taboo on criticising Syrian foreign policy.
Parents whose sons were missing in Deraa after they came under attack from security forces on Wednesday were trying to find out what happened to them, residents said.
"People are still hysterical. They do not know whether their sons are dead or alive. No one yet knows how many people are dead. There could be scores," one resident said.
"I counted six bodies near the 26th of October Square at 3:30 p.m. yesterday," said one Deraa resident who declined to be named for fear of being traced and arrested.
There were unconfirmed reports that dozens more bodies were taken to Tafas hospital outside the city, they added.
Deraa, on the Jordanian border, has long been a stronghold of the Baath Party, which recruits cadres from the region. But in recent days it has become a focus of unprecedented protests against President Assad.
Assad, a close ally of Iran, key player in neighbouring Lebanon and supporter of militant groups opposed to Israel, has dismissed rising demands for reform in Syria, a country of 20 million people run by the Baath Party since a 1963 coup.
In a separate attack just after midnight in the early hours of Wednesday, security forces fired at protesters in the vicinity of the Omari mosque in Deraa's old quarter, residents said.
Two people killed in that attack, a man and a woman called Ibtissam Masalmeh, were buried in Deraa on Wednesday.
Thousands marched in the funeral chanting calls for freedom, and -- for the first time since protests broke out on Friday -- slogans against Iran and Lebanon's armed Shi'ite movement Hezbollah. - Reuters