Syrian refugee children in Turkey 311.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
AMMAN - Syrian security forces killed 32 protesters when they fired live ammunition, including machine guns aimed from at least five helicopter gunships, at pro-democracy demonstrations in Syria on Friday, an activists' group and witnesses on the ground said.
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The killings mainly occurred in the Hauran Plain, cradle of the uprising against Baathist rule, Damascus, the coastal city of Latakia and in the northwestern province of Idlib, the latest region where troops and tanks have deployed to quell protests, the Local Coordination Committees said in a statement.
Also on Friday, UN spokesman Martin Nesirky confirmed a report by Kuwait news agency KUNA that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had been trying to call Assad on Thursday but was told that the president was "not available."
He added that Ban had been trying to speak with Assad all week but was unable to get through to him.
Despite the threat of bloody reprisals, rallies calling for Assad's exit swept Syria on Friday, reaching cities in nearly every corner of the nation. "Long live Syria, down with Bashar Assad!" protesters shouted in many of the protests staged after Friday prayers across the country of 20 million.
Security forces shot dead at least two demonstrators taking part in a rally in the Qaboun district of the capital Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Some troops fired from rooftops at marchers, activists said.
Residents said government forces also killed two protesters in the village of Busra al-Harir in the southern Hauran plain and also fired on thousands defying a heavy security presence in the southern city of Deraa
, fount of the three-month-old revolt that seeks the removal of authoritarian President Assad.
"There was a demonstration of 1,000 people when security police fired from their cars," a Busra al-Harir resident said, giving the names of the dead as Abdelmuttaleb al-Hariri and Adnan al-Hariri. The latter was an amputee, residents said.
However, state television said unidentified gunmen killed a member of the security forces and a civilian in Busra al-Harir.Journalists denied access
Syria has barred most independent media from the country, making it difficult to verify accounts of the bloodshed.
Witnesses told Reuters by telephone that some of the protesters shot by security forces in Deraa -- including two who were hit in the head and chest -- were hurriedly carried by youths to a nearby makeshift clinic.
Almost 3,000 Syrian civilians have fled cross the northwest border into Turkey
, Turkish officials said Jisr al-Shughour largely emptied of people in the face of a looming military operation following clashes earlier this week.
A Turkish newspaper said Ankara was looking into creating a buffer zone along the border as a contingency if hundreds of thousands of Syrians wound up fleeing the military campaign to stamp out protests against 41 years of Assad family domination.
Syrian authorities said that "armed gangs" killed more than 120 security personnel in Jisr al-Shughour, a town of 50,000.
Rights groups say over 1,100 civilians have been killed since March in the revolt to press demands for more political freedoms and an end to corruption and poverty.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Friday the legitimacy of Assad's rule was open to question. "I would say the slaughter of innocent lives in Syria should be a problem and a concern for everybody," Gates told a seminar in Brussels.
"Whether Assad still has the legitimacy to govern his own country, I think is a question everyone needs to consider."Britain, France, Germany and Portugal have asked the UN Security Council
to condemn Assad, although veto-wielding Russia has said it would oppose such a move.
World powers have shown no appetite for any Libya-style military intervention in Syria because it sits on a major fault line of Middle East conflict, allied with Iran against nearby Israel. The Syrian leadership has shrugged off mild punitive sanctions imposed so far, and verbal reprimands from abroad.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan reiterated on Thursday that Turkey would keep its gates open to people from Syria. But he complained that Damascus was taking the issue "very lightly" and Ankara could not defend its "inhumane" reply to the unrest.
Assad, 45, has promised reforms, even while cracking down on unrest posing the gravest threat to his 11 years of iron rule.