Syrian protesters, mourners demand Assad overthrow

Bashar al-Assad has dismissed protests as part of foreign-backed conspiracy.

Last Updated: May 23, 2011, 14:05 PM IST

Amman: Thousands of Syrians attending the funerals of pro-democracy protesters called on Sunday for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, witnesses said, in the latest outburst against his rule.

Separately, protesters took to the streets in an eastern town after a 17-year-old activist burned himself to death on Friday, campaigners said, an incident that echoed the self immolation of a Tunisian vegetable trader last year that sparked protests across the Arab world.

"The people want the overthrow of the regime," mourners chanted on Sunday as they streamed out of the Big Mosque in the Damascus suburb of Saqba, according to one witnesses.

The slogan echoed the rallying cry of uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt this year that unseated their leaders.

The protests that brought down Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali erupted after the suicide of 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17 because police seized his grocery cart.

Assad has largely dismissed the protests as part of a foreign-backed conspiracy to sow sectarian strife in Syria.

Syrian authorities blame most of the upheaval on "armed saboteur groups”, backed by Islamists and foreign powers, who they say have killed more than 120 soldiers and police.

On Sunday, witnesses said mourners at Nour Mosque in the central city of Homs shouted "Leave, leave," at the funeral of six out of 11 people that rights groups said were killed by security services on Saturday.

"The shooting was in cold blood. People were streaming peacefully out of the cemetery," a resident of Homs said.

In Saqba, a witness said by phone that mourners also chanted the name of "Martyr Ziad al-Qadi”, reportedly killed when security forces fired live rounds at a demonstration in the suburb on Saturday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in Britain, said it had the names of 863 civilians who had been killed in shootings by security forces since the pro-democracy uprising erupted 10 weeks ago.

A human rights campaigner said 17-year-old activist Mohammad Akram al-Tumah set himself alight in the eastern town of Mayadeen on Friday, days after he was released from custody by state security agents.

"He set fire to himself around 3:00 p.m.in front of the state security building as a demonstration was taking place there demanding the release of political prisoners in the compound," the rights campaigner said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Protesters rushed to stop him but it was too late. Tumah died in hospital on Saturday," he said.

The campaigner said a large protest followed Tumah`s funeral in Mayadeen on Saturday and a small protest occurred on Sunday, both demanding Assad`s overthrow.

US criticism

Syria has barred most international media since the protests broke out two months ago, making it difficult to verify accounts of the violence.

The United States had been trying to patch up relations with Assad to wean him off an anti-Israel alliance with Iran, but reports of the crackdown have turned Washington against the Syrian leader.

Washington told Assad on Thursday to lead a transformation to democracy or step aside.

The US State Department said in a statement that "the Assad regime remains the source of instability as it foments violence by meeting peaceful protests with deadly force and mass arrests."

Syria`s state news agency said on Saturday that armed groups killed 17 people on Friday in the provinces of Idlib and Homs.

It said the Interior Ministry had instructed the police "not to shoot, to preserve the lives of civilians”, and blamed the violence on the armed groups.

The unrest has posed a grave challenge to Assad`s rule.

In response, he has lifted a 48-year state of emergency and issued a decree to grant citizenship to stateless Kurds. He also sent tanks to several cities to stamp out protests, witnesses said.

Bureau Report