Images of dead children fan Syrian protests

THE images grow no less shocking with time – a gaping wound on a tiny skull, the hair matted with blood; a gunshot that pierced the skin of a small torso and went straight toward the kidney; and finally, the broken neck of a 13-year-old boy, his mangled body contorted on a plastic sheet.

Children have become a flashpoint issue in the uprising against the Syrian regime after video emerged of the mutilated and apparently tortured remains of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib, who has become a new symbol of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.

The video, and other images of children activists say were killed in a government crackdown on protests, are circulating widely among Syrians on YouTube and Al-Jazeera, Facebook and opposition websites.

And they are stoking even more fury against a regime the opposition says has lost all legitimacy.

Syria’s government tried to blunt the anger with promises yesterday to investigate Hamza’s death, but protesters deride that and other government concessions – including an amnesty that freed political prisoners and a committee to prepare for national dialogue – as nothing more than a ploy to buy time for Assad.

They say at least 25 children are among more than 1000 dead, with government crackdowns that increase the toll almost daily.

The deaths of two girls – a 12-year-old killed on Saturday when her school bus came under fire, and an 11-year-old shot dead on Tuesday while her town was being shelled – appeared certain to inflame tensions.

Already, a Syrian opposition page refers to the older girl, Hajar Tayseer al-Khatib, as “the flower of Syria’s martyrs.”

Another Facebook page, The Syrian Revolution 2011, addressed the regime directly in a posting: “Why do you hate our children. They are the symbol of our revolution. They are our freedom and the future of our country.”

Many of the dead children were from the southern province of Daraa, where the uprising was touched off by the arrest of 15 teenagers who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on the walls of the provincial capital.

At the time, those teens became the symbol of the new revolt inspired by the toppling of regimes in Egypt and Tunisia.

Hamza, the 13-year-old boy, has become a new emblem of the uprising and thousands of people now carry his smiling photo during protests or post it as their Facebook profile.

A Facebook page set in his memory has more than 66,000 fans.

State-run Syrian TV said Interior Minister Mohammed Shaar ordered an investigation into Hamza’s death, which has led to widespread outrage after images of his body were shown on YouTube and Al-Jazeera TV.

Al-Jazeera did not air the whole video, but a copy posted on YouTube apparently showed the boy’s shocking injuries.

Opposition groups blamed security forces for the boy’s death.

State television aired an interview late Tuesday with Dr Akram Shaar, who examined Hamza’s body.

He said the cause of the death was shooting, and three bullets had hit the boy’s body.

He added that what appeared to be bruises and signs of torture were the result of natural decomposition since the boy died on April 29.

Syria’s official news agency SANA said the doctor’s report “closes the door on the lies and allegations and shows the truth”.

State television said Hamza’s body was handed over to his family on May 21.

The station also aired a recorded interview with Hamza’s father who said he was received by Assad this week.

The father added that the president considers “Hamza as his son and was touched” by the death.

On Saturday, pro-democracy activists dedicated a page on Facebook to Hamza, saying he was “tortured and killed” by security forces in Daraa.

The activists said the Hamza had disappeared since taking part in a demonstration on April 29, which he decided to join after police killed his cousin.

“A month had passed by with his family not knowing where he is, or if or when will he be released. He was released to his family as a dead body. Upon examining his body, the signs of torture are very clear,” they said at the time.

A picture apparently of the young boy was shown on the Facebook page, under which it claimed he “had been killed under torture by the gangs of Assad”.

On Tuesday, UNICEF called on all parties to spare civilians, particularly children and women, and urged the government to investigate allegations of the detention and torture of children.

Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Wednesday that hundreds of people were detained daily in the province of Daraa and “the detainees, many of them children, were held in appalling conditions.”

On April 22, two boys whose ages were 7 and 10 were shot dead by security forces in the southern village of Izraa.

A video aired then showed a man ran carrying the body of a young boy, whose hair was matted with blood from a gaping head wound.

Zuhair Awad al-Amar, 8, died after he was shot near the kidney on May 21 in the southern village of Nimr. A YouTube video showed his injury as a narrator said “these are the reforms of Bashar Assad.”

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