Syrian forces kill 6 in mosque, open fire on marchers

Witnesses say live bullets, tear gas fired at anti-gov't protesters; hundreds of youth march in Deraa in solidarity with the city.

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
March 24, 2011 01:24
3 minute read.
Demonstrators in southern Syria

Protesters in southern Syria 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri)

 
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Syrian troops killed six people Wednesday in an attack on a mosque in the southern city of Deraa, and later opened fire on hundreds of youths marching from nearby villages in solidarity, witnesses said.

“They [the youths] came into Deraa from the north entrance. Bodies fell in the streets. We do not know how many died,” one witness said. “You didn’t know where the bullets were coming from. No one could carry away any of the fallen,” another resident said.

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Parents were seen crying in the streets during the evening, and loudspeakers from mosques around Deraa called on those whose relatives had died to go to clinics to collect the bodies.

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“Peaceful, peaceful,” the loudspeakers echoed – a cry taken up by protesters across the Arab world to emphasize the peaceful nature of their demonstrations against entrenched and undemocratic rulers and corruption and their demands for freedom.

Another witness saw 20 army trucks carrying soldiers heading to the city.

Deraa, on the Jordanian border, has long been a stronghold of the Baath Party, which recruits cadres from the region. But in recent days it has become a focus of unprecedented protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

The shooting on Wednesday began just after midnight, when security forces attacked protesters in the vicinity of the Omari mosque in the city’s old quarter, the focal point of the Deraa protests, residents said.

Electricity was cut off and telephone services were severed.



Cries of “Allahu Akbar” erupted in one quarter after another as the shooting at the mosque began.

YouTube footage showed what purported to be the street in front of the mosque before the attack, with the sound of gunfire audible and a person inside the mosque grounds yelling: “Brother, don’t shoot. This country is big enough for me and you.”

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Those killed included Ali Ghassab al-Mahamid, a doctor from a prominent Deraa family, who went to the Omari mosque to help victims of the attack.

“Syrian authorities think they can kill nonviolent democratic protesters with impunity,” exiled Syrian rights defender Haitham al-Manna told BBC television from Paris.

An official Syrian statement said: “Outside parties are transmitting lies about the situation in Deraa,” blaming what it described as armed gangs for the violence.

The statement said Doctor Mahamid, killed in an ambulance that had arrived at the scene to rescue the injured, was “assaulted by an armed gang.”

It said the armed gang “stocked weapons and ammunition in the mosque and kidnapped children and used them as human shields.”

State television showed guns, grenades and ammunition it said were found in the mosque, but activists said the protest was peaceful and there had been no weapons.

An official statement said later that Assad had sacked Deraa governor Faisal Kalthoum. But a main demand of the protesters was an end to what they term “repression” by the secret police, headed in Deraa province by a cousin of Assad.

The mosque attack brought to 10 the number of civilians killed by Syrian forces in six days of demonstrations for political freedom and an end to corruption in the country of 20 million.

France, which has been increasingly vocal in condemning the violence in Syria, urged Damascus to carry out political reforms without delay and respect its commitment to human rights. It called for an investigation into the recent deaths in Deraa, the release of those detained in demonstrations and an end to the use of “excessive force.”

In Damascus, authorities released six women protesters on Wednesday who took part in a silent demonstration last week supporting the release of political prisoners, lawyers said.

Assad has lifted some bans on private enterprise but ignored calls to end emergency law, curb a pervasive security apparatus, develop rule of law and freedom of expression, free political prisoners and reveal the fate of tens of thousands of dissidents who disappeared in the 1980s.

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