At least 50 killed in one of Syria's bloodiest weekends yet

Funeral procession comes under fire, leaving at least five dead; rights activist says 12 killed in Idlib province, 11 in Homs, 7 in Deraa.

Protestors in Syria 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Protestors in Syria 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Security forces shot dead at least 50 anti-government protesters in rallies that erupted across Syria on Friday, a leading human rights group said. Ammar Qurabi, who heads the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, said more than half were killed in the northwest province of Idlib, where tanks deployed on Friday to crush large demonstrations against the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Activists also said tens of thousands of people took part Saturday in the funeral for eight of those killed the day before in Homs. The funeral procession came under fire as the people marched from the Tal al-Nasr cemetery, leaving five dead and dozens wounded.
RELATED:At least 30 dead after forces fire at crowd in SyriaKuwait elected to UNHRC in Syria's stead
Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the unrest has largely spared central Damascus because economic life in the capital remains under the control of a Sunni commercial elite co-opted by the regime. “This is where the merchant class is, and this is the strategy of the regime, particularly Rami Makhlouf,” Badran said, referring to the Assad cousin who is one of Syria’s most powerful corporate tycoons. “Its ruling strategy is directly related to patronage. You buy these people into the regime - you tie them to the regime with business interests.”
Badran that while precise figures for the protests’ scale are unavailable, the geographic reach of the unrest seems to be spreading inexorably. “The protesters’ slogan was, ‘The regime says it’s over; we say it’s just begun,’” Badran said by phone from New York, referring to Friday’s demonstrations.
With most foreign journalists barred from Syria, updates from the country have come in large part through social media and video-upload sites. “Edward dark,” editor of the website Syrialeaks, wrote on his Twitter feed Saturday, “A question often asked in Syria - what if [someone] worse comes after Bashar? I say that even if Satan himself ruled it would be a step up for us.” Wissam Tarif, head of the human rights group Insan, tweeted that security forces had seized nine bodies in Tel Kalakh to prevent funerals from being held in the besieged town near the Lebanese border.
This weekend’s protests broke out in defiance of a military crackdown that another rights group says has killed more than 800 civilians in the past nine weeks. Friday’s estimated death toll made it one of the bloodiest days in the two-month-old uprising.
Echoing language used in previous similar statements, the state news agency SANA said the civilians, police and security forces were killed after armed groups exploited the commitment of police forces to specific instructions by the Interior Ministry "not to shoot, to preserve the lives of civilians". It said saboteurs burnt public buildings and police stations in Idlib, injuring eight policemen, and that a total of 17 people had been killed over the weekend.
Syria has barred most international media since the protests broke out two months ago, making it impossible to verify independently accounts from activists and officials.
The main weekly Muslim prayers on Fridays are a rallying point for protesters because they offer the only opportunity for large gatherings, and have seen the worst death tolls.
Activists said protests broke out this Friday in the Damascus suburbs, Banias and Latakia on the Mediterranean, the oil producing region of Deir al-Zor, Qamishli in the east and the southern Hauran Plain.
Syrian human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouna said on Friday at least 12 civilians were killed in Maaret al-Numan, in Idlib province, after tanks entered the town to disperse protesters. She said 11 were killed in the central city of Homs, while seven died in Deraa, Latakia, the Damascus suburbs and Hama.
Rights campaigners said Idlib, a relatively prosperous agricultural province, took the brunt of the crackdown on Friday, during which hundreds of Syrians were arrested.
They said those killed included at least five protesters shot by security forces while they were marching from the town of Ariha to join other protests in Idlib.
"They took their dead and went back to Ariha and burnt security and Baath Party headquarters and a Syriatel office," said one rights campaigner in the area. Syriatel, Syria's largest mobile phone operator, belongs to Assad's cousin Rami Makhlouf, who has expanded his control on various sectors of the economy since Assad succeeded his late father 11 years ago.
Security forces arrested 12 members of the Assyrian Democratic Party, from Syria's Christian minority, in a raid on their headquarters in Qamishli on Friday, rights activists said.
A witness said security forces fired teargas on protesters in Hama – the scene of a brutal 1982 crackdown that killed tens of thousands - where around 20,000 had gathered in two separate areas.
Reuters contributed to this report.