Syrian protests turn more violent

Activists say Syrian forces opened fire on mourners today in Deraa, but the government blamed 'armed gangs.' At least 13 people have been killed since protests started last Friday.

Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters
The minaret of Omari mosque is seen at the old city of Deraa on March 22. Syrian security forces killed four people on Wednesday in an attack on the Omari mosque in the southern city of Deraa, site of six days of antiregime demonstrations.

Syrian activists say that security forces opened fire on a crowd of mourners in the southern city of Deraa on Wednesday, hours after they stormed a mosque that has become the focal point of six days of antiregime demonstrations.

At least two people were reportedly killed in the shooting, raising the death toll to 13 since protests erupted in Deraa five days ago. Mourners were attending the funeral of two of six people killed Tuesday night when security forces reportedly entered the Omari mosque, which has become a field hospital and shelter for casualties of the past week’s demonstrations.

Although the chants of the Deraa protesters echo those of other uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain in calling for reforms and freedom, the Deraa residents are also railing against many local grievances.

They have demanded the removal of Faisal Kalthoum, the governor of the Deraa Province, whom they accuse of corruption and incompetence, and Atef Nagib, the local head of political security and a cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Mr. Kalthoum has been dismissed, but Mr. Nagib is believed to still hold office.

“It is notable that the regime is refusing everything and blaming armed gangs while at the same time giving in to all the demands of the demonstrators,” says a European diplomat in Damascus. “It could indicate internal divisions.”

Deraa lies in the Hawran region of southern Syria, where society is defined by strict tribal codes and loyalties that help explain why the uprising has persisted and expanded despite the efforts of the Syrian authorities. At least two other towns in the Hawran have seen protests – Nowa and Jassem, 18 and 25 miles north of Deraa, respectively.

“The tribes have all united in Hawran and they are asking for freedom,” says Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, who says he has been in contact with the protesters.

Before the shooting, the Syrian authorities had promised to investigate the earlier deaths of demonstrators and a government delegation had traveled to Deraa to present condolences to the bereaved families.

At least 150 people were said to be inside the mosque Wednesday when activists said it was stormed by troops from the Syrian army’s elite fourth division, which is headed by Maher al-Assad, brother of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president.

Among the victims of the assault was Ali Ghassab al-Mahamid, a doctor from a leading family in the town who went to the mosque to help treat the wounded, and Ibtissam Masalmeh, a young girl, according to Syria opposition sources.

“They asked everyone to go home and then began shouting and throwing tear gas. They closed the doors and the shooting began,” says Mr. Ziadeh.

One video posted on YouTube shows groups of protesters calling the Syrian troops “traitors." Gunshots are clearly audible in the clip and tear gas can be seen billowing in the streets as people scattered. At least 100 people were reported wounded.

Syria’s state-run news agency, SANA, blamed the casualties on an “armed gang,” which it accused of opening fire on an ambulance, killing a doctor, a paramedic, and the driver.

Quoting an anonymous government official, SANA added that the security forces “confronted the attackers and hit and arrested some of them." One member of the security forces was killed in the fighting, it said. The Syrian authorities also claimed to have found weapons stored inside the mosque, including AK-47 rifles and hand grenades. Opposition activists denied the claim.

However, there were reports of a brief clash Wednesday between security forces and protesters holed up in the Omari mosque. The reports could not be independently verified.

Protests broke out in Deraa on Friday in response to the continued detention of several youths who had scrawled antiregime graffiti on a wall some two weeks earlier.

Syrian troops and intelligence agents sealed off the town over the weekend. One opposition activist in Damascus who has been in regular touch with the protesters in Deraa since Friday says that all communications – landline and mobile phone – were severed as of 5 a.m. Wednesday.

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