At least five killed in Syria protests

AT least five people were shot dead as thousands of Syrians took to the streets to rally against President Bashar al-Assad on the first Friday of Ramadan in support of the protest hub of Hama, activists said.

Security forces fired at demonstrators in Irbin, near Damascus, killing five people and wounding many others, Syrian League for the Defence of Human Rights head Abdel Karim Rihawi told AFP in Nicosia, updating an earlier toll.

Another activist, Rami Abdel Rahman, said 20 people were wounded, seven of them seriously, as security forces opened fire in the Ter Maala district of the central city of Homs.

Communications were completely cut off as the army stepped up an operation to crush dissent in Hama, north of Damascus, where security forces killed at least 30 civilians and wounded dozens more earlier in the week.

“Thousands of demonstrators marched in Deir Ezzor, Daraa and Qamishli in support of the city of Hama despite the extreme heat,” Rihawi said, adding that they numbered 30,000 in Deir Ezzor alone.

Abdel Rahman said that “more than 12,000 people” also marched in Bench, in Idlib province, “to demand the fall of the regime and express their support for Hama and Deir Ezzor”.

“Hundreds of people came out of the Al-Mans Uri mosque in Jablah, chanting ‘God is with us’,” he told AFP.

State television, meanwhile, said two members of the security forces were shot and wounded by gunmen posted on rooftops in Duma, a suburb of the capital.

The call for yesterday’s protests came from activists on Facebook group The Syrian Revolution 2011, a driving force behind the demonstrations calling for greater freedoms since mid-March.

The Assad regime has sought to crush the democracy movement with brutal force, killing more than 1600 civilians and arresting thousands of dissenters, rights activists say.

Its latest crackdown has centred on Hama, where at least 30 people were killed on Wednesday by tanks shelling the city centre.

The city was isolated and the military continued an operation to combat what Assad’s regime calls “armed terrorist gangs” responsible for the deadly unrest.

State media reported that army units were removing “roadblocks set up by terrorist groups that have blocked roads and damaged public and private property, including police stations, using various weapons.”

The crackdown on Hama has prompted harsh words from Washington and Moscow, with Russia hinting at a possible change of heart after stonewalling firm UN action against Syria, its ally since Soviet times.

The White House said the deadly crackdown has put Syria and the Middle East on a “very dangerous path”, as Washington extended a raft of recent sanctions to include a businessman close to Assad and his family.

President Barack Obama’s administration appeared to be moving toward a first direct call for Assad to go, a step it has so far resisted, following the escalation of violence in Hama.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States would urge the Europeans, Arabs and others to do more to press Syria to stop its deadly crackdown.

Clinton said Assad’s regime was responsible for the deaths of more than 2000 people, repeating that Washington believes the embattled president has “lost his legitimacy to govern”.

The US Treasury Department froze the US assets of Mohammad Hamsho and his company, Hamsho International Group, and prohibited US entities from engaging in any business dealings with them.

Meanwhile, activists and analysts have dismissed as a ploy a new law allowing the creation of political parties alongside the Baath party, as decreed by Assad on Thursday.

The decree came after the UN Security Council condemned the crackdown and said those responsible should be held accountable, in a non-binding statement rather than a resolution.

Western powers had hoped for stronger action but were rebuffed by veto-wielding members Russia and China, who feared doing so would pave the way for another military intervention like the one in Libya.

But Russian President Dmitry Medvedev spoke forcefully about the situation on Thursday and called on Assad to “carry out urgent reforms”, warning otherwise “a sad fate awaits him and in the end we will have to take some decisions”.

And Kuwait on Friday urged a halt to the crackdown, expressing its “extreme pain” and calling for dialogue and a political solution to allow for “true reforms that meet the demands of the Syrian people”.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said developments in Syria “are unacceptable”.

“Operations with heavy arms and tanks in densely populated residential areas like Hama are not legitimate at all,” he was quoted by Anatolia news agency as saying.

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