Thousands shout for freedom in southern Syria

Thousands called for liberty in the Syrian city of Daraa defying a deadly government crackdown.

Updated: Mar 24, 2011, 21:07 PM IST

Daraa: Thousands called for liberty Thursday in the southern Syrian city of Daraa, defying a deadly government crackdown as they took to the streets in funeral marches for protesters killed by police gunfire, an activist said.

Media access to the marches was restricted but an Associated Press reporter heard sporadic bursts of gunfire echoing through the city in the afternoon. Almost all shops were shuttered, the streets were virtually empty and soldiers and anti-terrorism police stopped people at checkpoints and manned many intersections — the heaviest security presence since the unrest began.

The activist in contact with residents of Daraa said that massive crowds shouted "Syria, freedom!" as they marched toward one of the agricultural hub`s main cemeteries.

Others in Daraa held a sit-in in the al-Mahata neighborhood to protest the killing of residents in clashes between security forces and anti-government protesters, the activist 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 to 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.

Syrian police launched a relentless assault Wednesday on a neighborhood sheltering anti-government protesters, fatally shooting many in an operation that lasted nearly 24 hours, witnesses said.

A resident of Daraa who was reached by phone from Damascus said witnesses there reported seeing at least 34 people slain.

He said at least 20 bodies were brought to Daraa National Hospital, and seven others taken to hospitals in neighboring areas. In the early evening, people from the nearby villages of Inkhil, Khirbet Ghazale and al-Harrah tried to march on Daraa but security forces opened fire and hit them with rifle butts as they approached. The resident said seven more were killed in that shooting. Hundreds were wounded, he said.

The resident spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

"It was a very difficult, bloody day," he said. "There is a state of undeclared curfew in Daraa, whenever troops see four or five more people gathered they open fire," he said.

"Daraa today is like a ghost town, we are very scared," he said. "Everything is closed and the streets are empty, everywhere you look there`s security."

Presidential adviser Buthaina Shaaban told reporters that 10 people were killed Wednesday in what she called an attempt to target Syria because it supports resistance against Israel.

"What is being targeted is Syria`s position, Syria`s security and ability to be a pillar of resistance against Zionism and U.S. schemes," she said.

She said the Syrian government had no objection to peaceful protests, and claimed that demonstrators in Daraa had attacked security forces.

"The demands of the people are being studied night and day and Syria will witness important decision that meet the ambitions of our people," she said.

Abdul-Karim Rihawi, who heads the Syrian Human Rights League, said authorities had begun a campaign of detentions against activists, writers and bloggers in different parts of Syria.

Rihawi said the last to be detained was Mazen Darwish, a journalist who headed the independent Syrian Media Center. He said Darwish was summoned to a security office Wednesday noon and has not been seen since then. Also detained were well-known writer Loay Hussein and blogger Ahmad Hdaithi.

"These arrests will only increase tension," Rihawi said.

A statement posted Thursday on the Facebook page "The Syrian Revolution 2011" held Syrian authorities led by President Bashar Assad responsible for the violence and called on the Syrian people to hold protests in all Syrian provinces on Friday, which it dubbed "Dignity Friday."

An official at the Daraa National Hospital told The Associated Press by telephone that the hospital received a large number of casualties Wednesday and was "overwhelmed" with wounded people. He declined to say how many people were dead or hurt, saying he was not authorized to give out numbers or talk to the press.

He said the hospital had not received any new casualties since Wednesday night and that Daraa was "very quiet this morning."

Videos posted by activists on Youtube and Twitter showed dead and wounded people lying on a street in Daraa, as heavy gunfire crackled nearby and people shouted in panic.

One video showed a man with a bloodied face, apparently shot in the head, raising his index finger and saying "There is no God but Allah" — the credo Muslims are required to say before they die.

The authenticity of the videos could not be independently confirmed.

In a tacit admission that the protests hitting the Arab world have reached Syria, Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa said in remarks carried by state-media that "the developments in the Arab world should should be a catalyst to build nations and not for undermining national unity."

Bureau Report