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Activist: 15 dead in new clashes in southern Syria city

- 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.

Daraa is a province of some 300,000 people near the Jordanian border that has suffered greatly from years of drought.

The unrest there started with the arrest last week of a group of students who sprayed anti-government graffiti on walls in the main city of Daraa, some 80 miles south of the capital, Damascus.

Demonstrations calling for the students' release swelled into calls for political freedoms, and security forces killed at least seven people in attempts to quash them, according to witnesses and activists.

The Syrian government fired the governor of the southern province of Daraa but failed to quell popular anger, and on Tuesday the protests reached the village of Nawa, where hundreds of people marched demanding reforms, activist said.

So far, none of the slogans used by protesters has called for the ouster of President Bashar Assad, who became the head of Syria's minority Alawite ruling elite in 2000 after the death of his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad.

Daraa, like most of Syria, is predominantly Sunni Muslim.

On Wednesday, Abdul-Karim al-Rihawi, head of the Arab League for Human Rights, said several prominent activists have been arrested in the past two days, including well-known writer Loay Hussein. Mr. Hussein had issued a statement calling for freedom of peaceful protests and expressed solidarity with the Daraa protesters.

Mr. al-Rihawi said security agents picked up Mr. Hussein from his home in Damascus on Tuesday and confiscated his computer.

He said another activist, Issa al-Masalmi, was arrested in Daraa.

Also Wednesday, authorities said that six women who were detained last week after protesting in front of the Interior Ministry in central Damascus would be released Wednesday. The women were among 32 people, most of them relatives of political detainees in Syria, who were detained last Wednesday and charged by a prosecutor with hurting the state's image.

Mr. al-Rihawi said the women still would have to stand trial despite their release.

Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed from Beirut

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