Syria in dawn crackdown ahead of protester funerals

SYRIAN security forces made dawn arrests today as mourners prepared to bury the first of at least nine people killed in anti-government protests on the Muslim day of rest, rights activists said.

The arrests came in the tribal region around the town of Daraa, some 100 kilometres south of the capital, which has been one of the main centres of more than two weeks of demonstrations.

A 20-year-old who was killed by security forces during a protest in Sanamein, just outside Daraa, was to be buried in nearby Inkhel, a human rights activist said.

He was one among as many as three people killed during the Friday protest in the village. The official SANA news agency said a soldier was also seriously wounded in Daraa itself when young men tried to snatch his weapon.

Ahead of the funeral, security forces carried out a series of raids in the area, another activist said.

The activist named architect Khaled al-Hassan, lawyer Hassan al-Aswad and teacher Issam Mahameed as among those detained.

Funerals were also expected to be held later in the town of Douma, just north of Damascus, for eight people killed when police opened fire on worshippers who pelted them with stones as they left the main weekly Muslim prayers on Friday, a witness told AFP by telephone.

“Dozens more were wounded or detained,” the witness added.

The authorities have denied that the security forces were reponsible for the deaths, blaming them on an “armed group” which opened fire from rooftops in the town on demonstrators and police alike.

They acknowledged that there were an unspecified number of deaths and said there were dozens of wounded, some of them police.

State television charged that “some of the demonstrators had daubed their clothes with red dye to make foreign reporters believe that they had been injured”.

The families of four of the victims in Douma were debating whether to bury their dead on Saturday, but were likely to do so individually, a witness said.

The city is back to normal, he said. Shops were open, security forces were in evidence but were not displaying their weapons as they had on Friday.

“It is like any day,” he said. “There is tension and debate on when and how to hold funerals. Security forces have kept some of the corpses.”

Security forces were withholding the remaining bodies apparently to prevent the city mobilising for the funerals.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon is “deeply concerned” about the situation, a statement from his office said.

“The secretary general is deeply concerned about the situation in Syria, where more civilian deaths have been reported during the latest popular demonstrations,” it said. “He deplores the use of violence against peaceful demonstrators and calls for it to cease immediately.”

Protests took place for the first time in Qamishli and Amuda in the mainly Kurdish populated northeast on Friday, Kurdish rights activist Radif Mustafa told AFP.

“Friday of Martyrs” protests were also held in the coastal port of Latakia, the central industrial city of Homs and in Darriya, near Damascus.

In the capital itself, hundreds of protesters locked themselves inside Al-Rifai mosque chanting “Freedom, freedom”, as security forces tried to break in, a demonstrator said. Regime loyalists gathered in the square opposite.

The United States applauded what it called the courage and dignity of the demonstrators.

“We condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens demonstrating in Syria, and applaud the courage and dignity of the Syrian people,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.

President Bashar al-Assad, facing domestic pressure unprecedented in his 11-year rule, failed to lift almost 50 years of emergency rule in an address on Wednesday that was his first since the pro-reform protests erupted on March 15.

Instead, he said there was a “conspiracy” targeting Syrian unity.

Assad blamed Syria’s “enemies” for inciting sectarian divisions in the country ruled by emergency law since the Baath party seized power in 1963.

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