- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 23, 2011

DARAA, Syria (AP) — A Syrian activist on Wednesday said the death toll had risen to 15 in the deadliest day in a week of confrontations between government forces and protesters demanding reform.

Witnesses in Daraa saw the body of a 12-year-old girl near a mosque stormed by security forces overnight in an operation known to have killed at least nine people.

Another man was fatally shot by police after a funeral for one of the slain, the activist said.

And four more bodies were seen lying near the offices of a security agency, the activist said, but no one dared to come and pick them up.

Syrian police launched the relentless assault Wednesday on a neighborhood sheltering anti-government protesters, witnesses said.

At least nine were killed in the early morning attack on the al-Omari mosque in this southern agricultural city, where protesters have taken to the streets in calls for reforms and political freedoms, witnesses said.

Inspired by the wave of pro-democracy protests around the region, the uprising in Daraa and at least four nearby villages has become the biggest domestic challenge since the 1970s for the Syrian government, one of the most repressive in the Middle East. Security forces have responded with water cannon, tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition.

Democracy activists used social-networking sites to call for massive demonstrations across the country on Friday, a day they dubbed “Dignity Friday.”

A witness in Daraa told the AP that a woman was killed as she looked out her window to see what was happening during the mosque assault, which began after midnight and lasted for about three hours.

Heavy shooting rattled the city until at least the early afternoon, when an Associated Press reporter in the city heard bursts of semi-automatic gunfire echoing in its old center.

State TV said that an “armed gang” attacked an ambulance in Daraa and security forces killed four attackers and wounded others and were chasing others who fled. It denied that security forces had stormed the mosque, but also showed footage of guns, AK-47 assault rifles, hand grenades, ammunition and money that it said had been seized from inside.

A video posted on Facebook by activists showed what it said was an empty street near the al-Omari mosque, with the rattle of shooting in the background as a voice shouts: “My brother, does anyone kill his people? You are our brothers.” Its authenticity could not be independently verified.

Mobile phone connections to Daraa were cut, and checkpoints throughout the city were manned by soldiers in camouflage uniforms and plainclothes security agents with rifles. Anti-terrorism police wearing dark blue uniforms were also out on the streets.

An ambulance was parked on the side of a road leading to the old city, its windshield smashed.

The witness said hundreds of anti-terrorism police had surrounded the al-Omari mosque.

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