Syria protesters call for democracy, security forces answer with deadly gunfire
Unconfirmed reports of more than 40 dead as tens of thousands take to the streets
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
BEIRUT — Some 27 protesters were killed when Syrian security forces fired live bullets and tear gas at tens of thousands of people shouting for freedom and democracy, according to witnesses. There were other unconfirmed reports of more than 40 deaths.
Friday was expected to be a major test of whether President Bashar Assad‘s promises of sweeping reform would quell the monthlong uprising. Protesters flooded into the streets after prayers Friday in cities across the country.
Witnesses told the AP that the death toll stood at 27. Some reported seeing at least five corpses at the Hamdan hospital outside the capital Damascus. All suffered gunshot wounds.
In the southern province of Daraa, other witnesses told the AP that at least 10 people were killed when protesters marched in front of the mayor’s office. They said an 11-year-old boy was among the dead. The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Al-Jazeera’s live blog of Friday’s events in Syria rapidly became a list of places and number of people said to have been killed. It said it could not independently verify the reports.
At 8 a.m. ET, it was reporting that at least 41 had been killed. That did not include the 10 reported dead in Daraa by the AP and it was unclear whether it included the five bodies in Hamdan hospital.
A protester in Harasta, a Damascus suburb, said roadblocks had been set up in the area after about 1,500 people demonstrated.
“As soon as we started to gather in the main road around 3pm they started to attack us by using brutal force, including live ammunition,” he told Al-Jazeera. “Four people were injured and arrested by the security forces. People have dispersed now and are hiding in the small streets because the security forces are hunting for people.”
In the city of Hama security forces fired at protesters to prevent them from reaching a ruling Baath Party headquarters, according to witness.
“We saw two snipers on the building. None of us had weapons. There are casualties, possibly two dead,” the witness, a human rights campaigner who was at the protest, told Reuters.
In Douma, a Damascus suburb, security forces opened fire after some 40,000 people took to the streets. Witnesses said four people were wounded there.
“The people want the downfall of the regime!” shouted the protesters.
Friday’s witness accounts could not be independently confirmed because Syria has expelled journalists and restricted access to trouble spots. Witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Meanwhile, in the first joint statement since the protests broke out, activists coordinating the mass demonstrations demanded Friday the abolition of Baath Party monopoly on power and the establishment of a democratic political system.
“All prisoners of conscience must be freed. The existing security apparatus has to be dismantled and replaced by one with specific jurisdiction and which operates according to law,” they said in the statement, which was sent to Reuters.
The protest movement has crossed a significant threshold in recent days, with increasing numbers now seeking the downfall of the regime, not just reforms
Activists promised that Friday’s protests will be the biggest rallies yet against the regime led by Assad, who inherited power from his father 11 years ago in one of the most authoritarian countries in the Middle East.
The president has been trying to defuse the protests by launching a bloody crackdown along with a series of concessions, most recently lifting emergency laws that gave authorities almost boundless powers of surveillance and arrest.
He also has fulfilled a decades-old demand by granting citizenship to thousands among Syria’s long-ostracized Kurdish minority, fired local officials, released detainees and formed a new government.
But many protesters said the concessions have come too late — and that Assad does not deserve the credit.
“The state of emergency was brought down, not lifted,” prominent Syrian activist Suhair Atassi, who has been arrested several times in the past, wrote on her Twitter page.
“It is a victory as a result of demonstrations, protests and the blood of martyrs who called for Syria’s freedom,” she added.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.