At least seven protesters were shot dead by Syrian security forces on Friday on the second day of a nationwide ceasefire meant to restore peaceful political dialogue after 13 months of extreme violence, opposition activists said.
The shootings occurred as demonstrators rallied against President Bashar al-Assad, who has accepted the terms of the United Nations-brokered ceasefire which took effect on Thursday.
Syrians took to the streets across the country in small demonstrations after Friday’s Muslim prayers, trusting that the two-day-old ceasefire would protect them from the army bullets that have frightened off peaceful protesters for months.
One person was killed as marchers tried to converge on a central square in the city of Hama. Security forces shot one person dead as worshippers left a mosque in the town of Nawa in the southern Deraa province, where the uprising began.
A third died from his wounds after he was shot by security forces in the town of Salqeen in the northwestern province of Idlib, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the anti-Assad Local Coordination Committees said.
Friday of protests
Protesters held rallies in the Qadam and Assali districts of Damascus, while other demonstrations took place in towns and villages in the northern province of Aleppo, according to videos posted by activists on the Internet.
The human rghts' group added that demonstrators hurled stones at security forces in the Tariq al-Sadd district of Daraa, south of Damascus, cradle of the protest movement that erupted in March last year.
After the ceasefire came into force at dawn Thursday, peace envoy Kofi Annan declared he was “encouraged by reports that the situation in Syria is relatively calm and that the cessation of hostilities appears to be holding.”
But as Assad’s government and the rebels traded accusations of trying to wreck the ceasefire, Annan insisted “all parties have obligations to implement fully the six-point plan.”
The SNC, the most widely recognized opposition group in exile, and Internet-based activists called for peaceful demonstrations across Syria to test the government’s readiness to accept public shows of dissent.
“We call on the people to demonstrate and express themselves... The right to demonstrate is a principal point of the plan,” Burhan Ghalioun, head of the Syrian National Council, told AFP.
But Syria’s interior ministry insists people wanting to demonstrate must have permits.
“The right to demonstrate peacefully is guaranteed by law. We call on citizens to apply the law by requesting a permit before demonstrating,” said a statement carried by the official SANA news agency.
Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad fought rebels on Friday near the border with Turkey, according to activists in the first clash since a U.N.-brokered ceasefire came into effect a day earlier.
The clash appears to be the first serious violation of an internationally brokered ceasefire that went into effect a day earlier.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the clashes are taking place on the outskirts of the northwestern village of Khirbet el-Joz that borders Turkey.
The group, which has a network of activist throughout Syria, said army deployed tanks in the area before the clash.
“Fighting with heavy machineguns took place in Khirbet al-Joz, located (in Idlib province) on the Turkish border, between regime soldiers and (army) deserters,” Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP in Beirut.
Abdel Rahman, speaking on the phone, said the fighting was the first between the two sides since the ceasefire.
Opposition activist group Local Coordination Committees reported that dozens of tanks were deployed on the outskirts of Khirbet al-Joz and near the border with Turkey, while heavy gunfire was heard as regime forces attacked a unit of the rebel Free Syrian Army.
The rebel Free Syrian Army, for its part, insisted it was sticking to the ceasefire.
“The regime is being elusive. We are 100 percent committed to the ceasefire, but the regime is not abiding by it,” said FSA spokesman Colonel Kassem Saadeddine.
The Free Syrian Army in Idlib said they have orders not to respond to any military provocations by the regime.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said earlier on Friday that he did not believe in the sincerity of Assad, nor in the U.N.-backed ceasefire aimed at halting 13 months of bloodshed.
“I do not believe in Bashar al-Assad’s sincerity, nor unfortunately in the ceasefire. I think we must deploy observers so that at the very least we know what is happening,” he said in an interview with French television I-Tele.
“I am convinced that the international community must assume its responsibilities and create humanitarian corridors so those unfortunates who are being massacred by a dictator can escape,” said Sarkozy, who is campaigning for re-election in an April-May presidential vote.
On Friday, the UN Security Council could vote on a resolution authorizing the deployment of observers to monitor both sides to the conflict in Syria, which monitors say has cost more than 10,000 lives since March 2011.
At least 37 people were reportedly killed by army gunfire across Syria on Thursday, according to Local Coordinating Committees, despite the military ceasefire agreement that started on the same day.