Mourners shot at Syrian funerals


Snipers shot dead at least three mourners Saturday in Douma, a suburb of the Syrian capital where funerals were underway for several protesters killed the previous day, witnesses said.

Tens of thousands of mourners attended the funerals on Saturday of nearly 100 Syrians reported killed by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad during anti-government demonstrations held in several cities, according to Al Arabiya sources.

They chanted, “Overthrow the regime,” according to witnesses.

Some of them packed buses and headed for the southern town of Ezreh for the funerals of 18 people killed in the protests, a rights activist said.

Funerals were also due to take place in other parts of Syria after the deaths on Friday in one the bloodiest days of protests since unprecedented pro-democracy demonstrations erupted on March 15, according to Reuters.

“More than 150 buses left from Deraa and neighboring villages to attend the funerals of 18 martyrs killed Friday in Ezreh,” in Deraa province, the activist said requesting anonymity.

Deraa has been an epicenter of protests against the regime of President Assad, who on Thursday overturned nearly five decades of draconian emergency rule in the autocratic country.

In a statement obtained by Al Arabiya late Saturday evening, about 1,500 Syrian rights activities and intellectuals called for “a two-week halt of demonstrations to give the government a chance to demonstrate its seriousness in implementing the pledged reforms.”

They also called on the government to take “immediate” steps to ensuring people right to peaceful demonstration, releasing political prisoners, and prosecuting those suspected of corruption.

The “Good Friday” protests had been called to test the long sought-after freedoms, Reuters said.

A group called the Committee of Martyrs of 15 March Revolution issued a list of 82 names of people killed, but said the toll could reach 100 as it tried to confirm more deaths from what it called a “massacre.”

The London-based Syrian Human Rights Committee put the death toll at 72, while others gave an even higher toll, including a group of activists who said in an Internet statement that 92 people were killed.

Friday’s toll compared with killings on March 23 in the southern town of Deraa, when activists said 100 people died.

The funerals in Ezreh—where the largest numbers of people were killed on Friday—were due to take place after the midday Muslim prayers, said the activist.

“They are expected to become a huge rally against the regime,” he said, according to Reuters.

A funeral was also to be held in the Damascus neighborhood of Midan for a person killed during the protests.

Abdel Karim Rihawi, of the Syrian League for Human Rights, said funerals would also be held for three people killed in Barzeh, another Damascus neighborhood, and for five who died in Harasta, north of the capital.

SANA, the official news agency, said eight people were killed Friday in Ezreh and 20 others wounded “including security forces in an attack by criminal gangs.”

Armed gangs also killed two policemen Friday in the capital Damascus and the central city of Homs, another hub of protests, SANA said.

SANA said that the security forces intervened during the protests to prevent clashes between demonstrators and passers-by, and used only tear gas and water cannons.

The agency said meanwhile that President Assad appointed a new governor for the northern port of Latakia, another hub of protests, after having replaced the Homs governor on Thursday after protest-related violence.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama of the United States has condemned Syria’s “outrageous” use of violence, accusing the regime of seeking Iran’s aid in a brutal month-long crackdown.

According to Reuters, Mr. Obama also dismissed as “not serious” President Assad’s move to scrap the emergency rule imposed by the ruling Baath Party when it seized power in 1963. Mr. Assad had said that he would allow for peaceful demonstrations. But Mr. Obama scoffed at that promise in light of the violence against protesters on Friday.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations also condemned the Syrian government for the killing of scores of demonstrators. He renewed calls for a “transparent” independent investigation.

“The secretary general condemns the ongoing violence against peaceful demonstrators in Syria, which again has killed and injured many today, and calls for it to stop immediately,” said UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq.

At least 100 people were reportedly killed and dozens were injured when Syrian security forces fired live bullets and teargas to disperse “Good Friday” protests in several cities, witnesses reported. The death toll seemed to be rising early Saturday.

The reported deaths have created a new crisis for the regime of President Assad, raising questions about whether he is fully in control of Syrian security forces. The deaths raise questions about how far Mr. Assad is prepared to go to stay in power, and if the international community will take steps to prevent a humanitarian disaster in this geopolitically strategic Arab country.

The deaths on Friday also bring back memories of large numbers of political opponents who were mowed down by security forces in the city of Hama when Mr. Assad’s late father, President Hafez al-Assad was in office. Mr. Assad’s brother, Rifaat al-Assad, personally conducted a “scorched earth” campaign in February 1982 against Sunni Muslims who protested against the Alawite regime of Hafez al-Assad. Estimates of those killed in Hama range from 10,000 to 40,000.

On Friday, thousands of protesters swarmed the streets in the southern flashpoint town of Deraa, Moadamia, Latakia, Banias, and the mainly Kurdish northeastern city of Qamishli. Thirty were killed in the southern town of Izzra’, 22 in Damascus, 18 in the Homs area and the rest in other towns and villages, activists said, in what was the deadliest day so far during weeks of protest.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement that two boys aged 7 and 10 years old were among those killed in Izzra’ as was a 70-year-old man.

“The Syrian authorities have again responded to peaceful calls for change with bullets and batons. They must immediately halt their attacks on peaceful protesters and instead allow Syrians to gather freely as international law demands,” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa director.

“They must also immediately launch an independent investigation into what happened and ensure that any security forces found to have carried out these killings are brought to justice,” Mr. Smart said.

Hundreds also protested in Midan, a district just outside the walled boundaries of Old Damascus, which was heavily bombed by French colonial forces during the 1925-1926 Great Syrian Revolt against French rule.

“Freedom, freedom,” and “God, Syria, freedom, that’s all,” the protesters, who witnesses said numbered around 6,000, chanted in Qamishli as they carried a giant Syrian flag.

In Deraa, a key focus of the unprecedented demonstrations that broke out more than a month ago, called for the fall of President Assad’s regime.

The protests, in the city which saw the outbreak of Syria’s five-week-old popular demonstrations, came a day after Mr. Assad lifted a draconian state of emergency which had been in place for nearly five decades—one of the key demands of the protesters.

Syria’s army deployed in the city of Homs and police put up checkpoints across the capital, witnesses said.

President Assad, 46, has been in power since his father, Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, issued decrees Thursday to scrap the state of emergency as well as abolish the state security court and allow citizens to hold peaceful demonstrations.

The moves are aimed at placating a pro-democracy movement that has seen protests across the 23-million population country, ruled by one of the Middle East’s most fearsomely autocratic regimes since the Baath Party seized power 48 years ago.

Activists and rights groups have called the moves insufficient and urged the authorities not to suppress the “Good Friday” rallies which some said would test the regime’s sincerity in forging with reforms.

A Facebook group that has been a motor of the unprecedented protests called for the rallies spanning the Christian and Muslim faiths on “Good Friday,” which commemorates Jesus Christ’s crucifixion.

Friday is also the Muslim day of rest when the biggest demonstrations have been staged across Syria after weekly prayers in mosques.

Joshua Landis, head of the Center for Middle East Studies and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma in the United States, said, “Friday will be a day of reckoning,” according to AFP.

(Sara Ghasemilee of Al Arabiya can be reached at: [email protected].)