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Bloodiest day yet for Syria's anti-regime protesters

A deadly crackdown by Syrian security forces on tens of thousands of anti-regime protesters across the country left scores dead on Friday, just a day after President Bashar al-Assad ended 50 years of emergency rule.


REUTERS - Syrian security forces killed at least 70 protesters on Friday, rights activists said, the bloodiest day in a month of escalating pro-democracy demonstrations against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

Syrian rights organisation Sawasiah said 70 civilians had been killed across the country, in the biggest demonstrations to sweep Syria so far. Wissam Tarif, director of human rights group Insan, gave a similar death toll.

"At least 72 people have been killed so far. The number of injured exceeds 80 people in Homs and its villages and the villages (near the southern city) of Deraa," he told Reuters.

It was not possible to independently confirm the figures.

Tens of thousands of people had taken to the streets of cities across Syria and called for the "overthrow of the regime", reflecting the hardening of demands which initially focused on reforms and greater freedoms.

The protests went ahead despite Assad's lifting of the state of emergency the day before. Ending the hated emergency rule, in place since the Baath Party seized power 48 years ago, was a central demand of demonstrators, who also seek the release of political prisoners and dismantling of the security services.

Washington urged Syria to stop the violence against protesters and British Foreign Secretary William Hague said emergency law should be "lifted in practice not just in word".

"This was the first test of the seriousness of authorities (towards reform) and they have failed," Qurabi said.

Friday's violence brings the death toll to about 300, according to rights activists, since the unrest which broke out on March 18 in the southern city of Deraa.

Activists cited the highest toll in the nearby village of Izra'a where protesters had been trying to head for Deraa. Residents said 14 people were killed.

"Izra'a is in the dark. No mobile phones or landlines working. People have been talking from villages near to Izraa but not in the town," said Wissam Tarif of human rights organisation, Insan, who had 12 confirmed killed in Izra'a.

Syrian television said eight people were killed and 28 wounded, including army personnel, in attacks by armed groups in the village. It added an armed group had attacked a military base in the Damascus suburb of Muadhamiya.

As in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, citizens are rebelling against both a lack of freedom and opportunity and security forces' impunity and corruption that has enriched the elite while one-third of Syrians live below the poverty line.

In the first joint statement since the protests broke out, activists coordinating the demonstrations on Friday demanded the abolition of the Baath Party monopoly on power and the establishment of a democratic political system.

Aided by his family and a pervasive security apparatus, Assad, 45, has absolute power in Syria.

Protests across country

Protests swept the country of 20 million people, from the Mediterranean city of Banias to the eastern towns of Deir al-Zor and Qamishli. In Damascus, security forces fired teargas to disperse 2,000 protesters in the district of Midan.

In Hama, where Assad's father crushed an armed Islamist revolt in 1982, a witness said security forces opened fire to prevent protesters reaching the Baath Party headquarters.

"We saw two snipers on the building. None of us had weapons. There are casualties, possibly two dead," said the witness.

Syria's third city Homs, where security forces had killed 21 protesters this week when demonstrators tried to gather at a main square, was not spared on Friday either.

"I was in the centre of Homs and in front of me I heard a security commander telling his armed men: 'Don't spare them (protesters)'", rights campaigner Najati Tayara told Reuters.

Witnesses said security forces also shot at protesters in the Damascus district of Barzeh and the suburb of Douma.

Al Jazeera showed footage of three corpses, wrapped in white burial shrouds, which it said were from the eastern Damascus suburb of Zamalka.

Ahead of the main weekly prayers on Friday, which have often turned out to be launch 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.

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.

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, usually followed by an intense crackdown.

Activists said some funerals for those killed on Friday took place in Damascus suburbs in the evening. Funerals have been another platform for protesters in recent weeks and security forces have opened fire when mourners started demonstrating.

The authorities have blamed armed groups, infiltrators and Sunni Muslim militant organisations for provoking violence at demonstrations by firing on civilians and security forces.

Western and other Arab countries have mostly muted their criticism of the killings in Syria for fear of destabilising the country, which plays a strategic role in many of the conflicts
in the Middle East.


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