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Syria security forces fire on mourners

Government forces shoot at crowds who turned out for the funerals of protesters killed Friday. A general strike has been called, and another crackdown is expected.

April 23, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi and Alexandra Sandels | Los Angeles Times
  • A still image taken from amateur video shows protesters holding a large Syrian flag at a demonstration Friday in Dara.
A still image taken from amateur video shows protesters holding a large… (Reuters )

Reporting from Beirut — Syrian security forces opened fire Saturday on thousands of angry mourners pouring into the streets in politically charged funeral marches for some of the scores of people shot dead at nationwide mass demonstrations a day earlier, according to witnesses and amateur video footage posted online.

At least 107 people were killed in Friday's violence, according to a list of names compiled by a human rights activist.

Mourners appeared somber but defiant, chanting, "The people want the overthrow of the regime" as they marched down narrow streets holding coffins aloft, some raising clenched fists, as shown on video footage uploaded to the Internet.

A witness who gave his first name as Ihsan told The Times that snipers in civilian clothes positioned on rooftops in the Damascus suburb of Duma opened fire on the mourners, killing at least four, but the account could not be independently verified.

"We are living in a real war," he said. "We haven't been able to reach the graveyard yet because snipers and security forces in uniform are shooting at the funeral procession from rooftops and the streets."

A general strike had been called in Duma in a furious response to Friday's deadly crackdown by security forces, and protesters expected new assaults.

Friday's protests, coinciding with Good Friday, will be remembered as a bloody and perhaps landmark day in Syrian history. Mass demonstrations across the country's cities, towns and villages were met with indiscriminate gunfire by Assad's security forces, hardening the divide between a regime determined to retain power and increasingly fearless protesters demanding the overthrow of the government.

Tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets of Syrian cities after weekly prayers on a day dubbed "Great Friday" by protest leaders. Assad's armed forces responded by firing volleys of bullets and tear gas into the crowds, despite government decrees implemented just a day earlier to allow peaceful protests.

"Can you hear it? Listen," said a witness reached by telephone in the city of Duma, where a barrage of gunfire and cries of pain and terror could be heard. "This is a war. The regime has declared a war on the Syrian people."

Chants in the background grew louder even as gunfire continued.

"The people want the overthrow of the regime," the protesters cried, using the provocative slogan borrowed from revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, which inspired a wave of unrest against dictatorial regimes throughout the Arab world.

The unrest threatens the stability of a key nation that borders Israel, is locked in a strategic alliance with Iran and serves as a conduit for weapons and political support to Hezbollah in Lebanon and militant groups in the Palestinian territories.

U.S. and European officials, despite their differences with Assad and his late father, Hafez, have long considered the clan preferable to Islamists believed to have a powerful political presence in Syria.

All signs pointed to the crisis growing graver, bloodier and deeper. The street protests, which used to break out only on Fridays, are now a daily occurrence in the tightly policed nation of 23 million.

President Obama said Friday in a statement carried by the Associated Press that the crackdown on protesters "must come to an end now" and accused Damascus of seeking Iranian help to repress its people.

Although it condemned the violence, Obama's tough statement did not refer to any potential U.S. consequences if Assad refused to heed his demands.

Hundreds of people have been killed by Syrian security forces answering to Assad, who is commander in chief as well as president, in five weeks of unrest. Protesters, knowing they risk death, nevertheless have been flooding the streets, challenging the regime. Their simple calls for reform have mushroomed into a roar demanding a government change.

At the same time, security forces have grown more brutal and the alternative reality portrayed by state media more divergent from the violence on the streets.

State media Friday downplayed the civil unrest, the bloodiest in the country's recent history, as limited. Security forces, the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported, "used water hoses and tear gas to settle scuffles that erupted between demonstrators and citizens and to protect private properties."

The chasm of mistrust between the government and protesters has become so wide that activists now sit vigil outside hospital morgues to ensure that the authorities don't snatch protesters' corpses to prevent funeral marches.

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