At least 70 killed in deadliest day of Syrian protests

Witnesses say live rounds, tear gas used in pro-democracy rally in Damascus; forces fire at protesters in Hama trying to reach ruling Baath Party headquarters; 1000s call for overthrow of Assad regime.

Syrian women gather to protest_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Syrian women gather to protest_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Security forces and gunmen loyal to President Bashar al-Assad shot dead at least 70 pro-democracy protesters in Syria on Friday, the Syrian human rights organization Sawasiah said.
An official in Sawasiah, an independent organization founded by jailed human rights lawyer Mohannad al-Hassani, told Reuters the killings of civilians occurred the Damascus district of Barzeh, its suburbs Zamalka, Harasta, Douma, Muadamiya, Qaboun and Hajar al-Asswad, as well as in the cities of Hama, Latakia and Homs, and in the southern town of Izra'a.
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"At least 49 people were killed. There are a lot of wounded
and many people are missing. We believe there are at least 20
people missing, some believe they are dead," activist Ammar
Qurabi said. He said most of the dead had been shot, and a few
died after inhaling teargas. The Associated Press reported a boy among those killed.
Witnesses reported dozens injured in the deadly clashes.
Protesters in Damascus neighborhoods, Homs, and Douma and other Syrian towns continued their call for democracy and the end of Assad's regime.
A witness told Dubai based Arabic news channel Al-Arabiya that at least five had fallen wounded in Douma, 3 in Homs, and at least two others in Deraa, a city that has seen sustained clashes between anti-government protesters and police for weeks.
The witness added that security forces had opened fire on protesters in the Al-Hajar Al-Aswad neighborhood in Damascus, Al-Arabiya reported.
Forces also fired at protesters in the city of Hama to prevent them from reaching a ruling Baath Party headquarters.
"We saw two snipers on the building. None of us had weapons. There are casualties, possibly two dead," a witness said, a human rights campaigner who was at the protest.
Activists also reported demonstrations in the eastern towns of Deir al-Zor and Qamishli, despite Assad's decision on Thursday to lift emergency law, a central demand of the month-long protests.
A witness told Reuters by phone that security forces fired tear gas from a flyover overlooking Midan, a district just outside the walls of Old Damascus.
"There were over 2,000 protesters and now hundreds have re-grouped," the witness said. Chants of "the people want the overthrow of the regime", the rallying cry of Arab uprisings from Tunisia to Yemen, were audible in the background.
More than 220 protesters have been killed since protests erupted on March 18 in Deraa, rights campaigners say, including 21 protesters killed this week in the central city of Homs.
Ahead of the main weekly prayers on Friday, which have often proved the launching pads for major demonstrations, the army deployed in Homs and police put up checkpoints across Damascus, apparently trying to prevent protests sweeping in from suburbs.
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After prayers finished in Deraa, several thousand protesters gathered chanting anti-Assad slogans. "The Syrian people will not be subjugated. Go away doctor (Assad), we will trample on you and your slaughterous regime", they shouted.
A decree Assad signed on Thursday that lifted emergency law, imposed by his Baath Party when it took power in a coup 48 years ago, was seen by the opposition as largely symbolic, since other laws still give security forces wide powers.
In the first joint statement since protests erupted five weeks ago, activists coordinating the mass protests demanded on 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 with specific jurisdiction and which operates according to law," they said in the statement, which was sent to Reuters.
Human Right Watch said Assad "has the opportunity to prove his intentions by allowing (Friday's) protests to proceed without violent repression.
"The reforms will only be meaningful if Syria's security services stop shooting, detaining, and torturing protesters," said Joe Stork, the group's deputy Middle East director.
Assad's conciliatory move to lift the state of emergency followed a familiar pattern since the unrest began a month ago: pledges of reform are made before Friday when demonstrations are the strongest, and are usually followed by an intense crackdown.