As death toll rises, Syrians flee across border
Hundreds of Syrian civilians fled into Lebanon Saturday as security forces opened fire in the Western border town of Tall Kalakh, killing at least four people, witnesses said. President Bashar al-Assad had ordered troops not to shoot.
AFP - Syrian security forces killed at least four people on Saturday in a border town, witnesses said, as the death toll rose in anti-regime protests despite a no-shoot order, dialogue offer and troop pullouts.
"The security forces, who had been encircling Tall Kalakh since the morning, fired machine guns. At least three people were killed and several were wounded" in the western town near the border with Lebanon, a witness said.
A hospital source across the border said a man named as Ali Basha, who was admitted to a Lebanese hospital earlier the same day after fleeing Syria with gunshot wounds, had died of his injuries.
More than 500 people, mostly women and children, fled across the border from Tall Kalakh on Saturday, town councillor Mahmud Khazaal said.
Some of those who entered the area of Wadi Khaled in northern Lebanon suffered gunshot wounds, an AFP correspondent said, adding he saw two women and a man rushed away by ambulance.
Khazaal said intermittent gunfire could be heard across the border in Syria, and that refugees fleeing the violence reported security forces were "shooting and besieging Tall Kalakh."
A witness in Tall Kalakh itself told AFP that residents were treating the wounded in a small clinic rather than the town hospital to prevent the casualties from being arrested or "finished off."
Security forces had fired at a funeral convoy at an entrance to the town, killing the mother and wounding three family members of a victim of the clashes, according to the Tall Kalakh resident.
The assault came a day after thousands of people took to the streets after the main weekly Muslim prayers for anti-regime protests in the town, about 160 kilometres (100 miles) north of Damascus.
At least five people were killed on Friday, activists said, despite an order from President Bashar al-Assad for security forces not to open fire on protesters and a government offer of dialogue.
Three people were shot dead in the central city of Homs and two others were killed as they emerged from a mosque in Damascus, activists said.
A woman also died on Friday of injuries sustained a few days earlier in Hara, near the southern town of Daraa, epicentre of the pro-democracy protests which erupted on March 15, they said.
One of those killed on Friday was Fuad Rajab, 40, hit by a bullet to the head when security forces fired to break up a demonstration in Homs.
The latest bloodshed cast a pall over the government's pledges to forge ahead with reforms in Syria, which has been gripped by two months of deadly protests, and triggered fresh condemnation from Western governments.
The United States expressed outrage and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe blaming Assad for the deadly repression.
Britain summoned the Syrian ambassador to London, in coordination with other European nations, warning of "further measures" if it fails to stop the crackdown.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, in an interview, said: "The use of tanks to respond to the demands of the people for more freedoms and democracy is unacceptable."
The army, which has been working alongside the security services to crush the protest movement, used batons, tear gas and water cannons to disperse demonstrators in Hama, to the north of Homs, activists said.
But the protesters succeeded in ripping down a town hall portrait of Assad, one activist said.
Security sources also fired warning shots on Friday to disperse thousands of anti-government protesters in Daraa, scene of a massive 10-day military operation that ended last week.
Assad's office had reportedly promised that security forces would not open fire on demonstrators as the government announced plans to launch a "national dialogue."
"A general national dialogue will start in the coming days in every governorate," Information Minister Adnan Mahmud said.
He also said army divisions had started a gradual withdrawal from the flashpoint coastal town of Banias and its province after ensuring a "return of security."
Up to 850 people have been killed and at least 8,000 arrested since the protests started in mid-March, human rights groups say. The regime has blamed the deadly violence on "armed terrorist gangs" and kept out the foreign media.