Syria hit by deadly clashes; at least 22 protestors killed

Officials blamed the violence on armed groups seeking to divide religiously diverse Syria.

Damascus: At least 22 protesters were killed on Friday as anti-regime demonstrations and clashes with security forces raged around Syria, the head of the National Organisation for Human Rights said.

"We have the names of 17 demonstrators killed in Daraa, and we have been told of the deaths of two protesters in Homs and three in Harasta," Qurabi said by telephone from Cairo, where he lives in exile.

"We are aware that live bullets, tear gas and another gas that causes fainting were used," he added.

Qurabi`s report was more or less in line with other activists, who earlier said 13 protesters had been killed in the flashpoint southern town of Daraa, a number of people wounded in the central industrial city of Homs and also spoke of fighting in Harasta.

The official SANA news agency said 19 members of the security forces were killed and 75 were wounded by "armed groups" in Daraa.

"According to an interior ministry source, there were 19 martyrs among the police and security forces and 75 wounded by armed groups which used live ammunition in Daraa," the agency said.

Amnesty International said it had confirmed eight people were killed in protests on Friday, six in Daraa and two in Homs in the west.

"The alarming reports coming from Syria today show that the authorities have not altered their violent methods for dealing with dissent," said Philip Luther, Amnesty`s Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme.

An activist asking not to be named for security reasons said the people in Daraa were killed when security forces opened fire with rubber bullets and live rounds to disperse stone-throwing protesters.

"Thousands of demonstrators leaving from three mosques marched to the courthouse but security forces dressed in civilian clothing fired tear gas to disperse them," said the activist.
"Demonstrators threw stones and clashes ensued," the activist said, adding that "the situation is very tense" in Daraa, some 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of Damascus.

Protesters angered by the deaths set fire to the ruling Baath party`s headquarters in Daraa, he added.

State television said "saboteurs and conspirators opened fire on residents and security forces" alike in the town, killing two people -- an officer and an ambulance man.

State television broadcast footage showing young men in keffiyehs standing behind trees while the sound of automatic weapons fire could be heard.

The agricultural city of Daraa has been the focal point of anti-government protests marred by deadly violence that human rights activists blame on the security services and the government blames on "armed" groups.

President Bashar al-Assad, under popular pressure to introduce major political reforms and end emergency powers which give security services great leeway to crush dissent, had ordered a probe into previous protest casualties in Daraa.

Abdel Karim Rihawi, who heads the Syrian League for the Defence of Human rights, said several people were injured in clashes in the industrial city of Homs and that there had also been fighting in Harasta, north of the capital.

Rihawi also said several thousand people demonstrated in the port city of Banias and Tal, 20 kilometres north of Damascus.

The rallies, he said, were staged in solidarity with the "martyrs" of protests in Douma, Daraa and Latakia.

Thousands also marched in five towns in northern Syria, mainly in predominantly Kurdish Hassake and Ammuda, calling for an end to emergency rule and the release of prisoners, another rights activist said.

"More than 3,000 people, Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians (Christians), demonstrated in Qamishli after Friday prayers before staging a sit-in on the main road," Kurdish rights activist Radif Mustafa said.

The rallies came a day after Assad granted citizenship to tens of thousands of Kurds who had been denied nationality for nearly half a century because of a controversial census.

In Douma, residents formed committees to verify the identities of people arriving for a rally to check they were not armed, a rights activist said.

He told AFP demonstrators and authorities had reached an agreement allowing protesters to rally without security force intervention.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said at least eight people, but perhaps as many as 15, were killed last Friday in Douma when men in civilian clothes, suspected by witnesses to be security services, fired at protesters.

The authorities blamed an unnamed "armed group."

Until Friday, Syrian rights activists estimated that more than 130 people had been killed in clashes with security forces, mainly in Daraa and the port city of Latakia, since the start of political unrest on March 15.

Officials have put the death toll at closer to 30 and blamed the violence on armed groups and foreigners seeking to divide the ethnically and religiously diverse country.

Bureau Report

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