Death toll continues to rise- At least 27 killed in protests across Syria (AFP)
DAMASCUS — Syrian security forces on Friday shot dead at least 27 people, including a child, as pro-democracy protests swept the country, with demonstrators pressing on with calls for more freedom in defiance of a fierce crackdown, activists said.
The child was among 11 people killed in the central city of Homs while another 10 died in the town of Maaret al-Naaman, located near the western city of Idlib, the activists said.
They said security forces also killed two people in the southern region of Daraa, epicentre of protests that have gripped Syria since March 15, one in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, another in the port city of Latakia and two in the eastern town of Deir Ezzor. Dozens were wounded.
“The victims in Maaret al-Naaman were gunned down at the entrance of the city where many people were converging from other nearby towns to join the protest,” an activist said.
State television blamed the violence on armed gangs which, it said, had opened fire on civilians and security forces in the region of Idlib and on the outskirts of Homs, resulting in unspecified casualties.
Protests were also reported in several other towns across Syria.
An activist said a demonstration was held outside a mosque in central Damascus but it was quickly dispersed by security forces.
Another activist in Homs said security services stormed a local hospital and removed several wounded along with the body of a victim.
In Ain Arab, a mainly Kurdish region near the northern city of Aleppo, hundreds took to the streets holding olive branches and chanting, “No to violence, yes to dialogue” and “We are not Islamists or Salafists, we want freedom,” said Radif Mustapha, head of a Kurdish rights group reached by telephone.
“No one is calling for the downfall of the regime,” he said, as the demonstrators could be overheard shouting “azadi, azadi,” or freedom in Kurdish.
In Banias, thousands of men, women and children marched, with many of the men bare-chested to show proof they were unarmed, Rami Abdel Rahman, of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP.
The accounts could not be independently verified as foreign journalists are prevented from travelling in the country to report on protests challenging the authoritarian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Crucially, both Damascus and Aleppo have so far been largely spared the unrest and it is widely believed that should massive demonstrations begin there that would mark a serious setback for the regime.
In a keynote speech on Thursday on the Middle East, US President Barack Obama urged Assad to lead a political transition or “get out.”
“President Assad now has a choice,” Obama said. “He can lead that transition or get out of the way.
“The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests.”
Damascus defiantly rejected the warning.
“Obama is inciting violence when he says that Assad and his regime will face challenges from the inside and will be isolated on the outside if he fails to adopt democratic reforms,” the official news agency SANA said.
More than 850 people have been killed and thousands arrested since the protests began in mid-March, according to human rights groups and the United Nations.
Assad’s government has blamed the violence on “armed terrorist gangs” backed by Islamists and foreign agitators.
A confident Assad earlier this week said he believes the unrest was coming to an end and, in an unusual step, acknowledged wrongdoing by the country’s security services.
The protests have posed the greatest threat to nearly five decades of rule by his Baath party, which is controlled by members of the minority Alawite community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The majority of Syria’s 23-million population are Sunni Muslims.
Western powers initially were hesitant to criticise Assad’s regime due to Syria’s strategic importance in the region and fears of possible civil war if the regime were to collapse.
The UN refugee agency said Friday that some 1,400 Syrians had fled into neighbouring Lebanon last week to escape the violence.
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