SYRIAN security forces killed at least 16 people yesterday, including a teenage boy, as thousands of people poured into the streets across the country calling for the downfall of President Bashar Assad’s autocratic regime, activists said.
The unrest also appeared to be spilling over into neighboring Lebanon. A senior member of a Lebanese political party allied with Syria was killed yesterday after gunmen opened fire and lobbed a grenade near hundreds of people holding an anti-Assad protest in northern Lebanon, a security official said in Beirut.
The protests in Syria came hours after Syrian troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships seized control early yesterday of another northwestern town in the latest military operation to quell the dissent.
Since the protests erupted in mid-March, Assad has unleashed the military to crush street demonstrations. Human rights activists say more than 1400 Syrians have been killed and 10,000 detained.
“What is our guilt? We just demanded freedom and democracy, nothing else,” said Mohamed, who spoke to The Associated Press from a refugee camp in neighbouring Turkey and asked to be identified only by his first name. He and other refugees offered fresh accounts of summary executions to suppress the pro-democracy movement.
“I saw people who were beheaded with machinegun fire from helicopters,” and a man tortured to death when security forces “poured acid on to his body”, he said.
Mohamed fled with his family as the military besieged Jisr al-Shughour, a rebellious town the government recaptured last Sunday.
He said a sugar factory in the city was turned into a jail where they “hold quick trials and execute anyone who they believe participated in protests”.
He is among about 9600 people are seeking shelter in Turkish refugee camps. Yesterday, UN envoy Angelina Jolie travelled to Turkey’s border with Syria to meet some of the thousands of Syrian refugees.
The Syrian crackdown has brought international condemnation and sanctions on the regime. A French official said the European Union was preparing new, expanded sanctions that would target the economy.
The Syrian government claims armed gangs and foreign conspirators are behind the unrest, not true reform-seekers. In what has become a weekly back-and-forth between activists and the government, both sides offered divergent death tolls.
Syria’s state-run TV said that a policeman was killed and more than 20 were wounded when “armed groups” opened fire at them. It added that six police officers were wounded in Deir el-Zour when gunmen attacked a police station in the area.
But the Local Coordination Committees, a group that documents the protests, and Syria-based rights activist Mustafa Osso told The Associated Press that eight people were killed, all of them civilians, citing witnesses on the ground.
Nine people were killed in the central city of Homs, two in the eastern town of Deir el-Zour and two in the Damascus suburb of Harasta, one in the northern city of Aleppo. The 16-year-old, who was in the streets protesting, and another person died in the southern village of Dael, the Local Coordination Committees said.
It’s impossible to independently confirm many accounts coming out of Syria. Foreign journalists have been expelled from the country and local reporters face tight controls.
Meanwhile, troops in large numbers poured into Maaret al-Numan, 45km from the Turkish border, said rights activist Osso. He said other forces were now massing around Khan Sheikhon, to the south, where gunmen attacked army forces earlier this month.
Omar Idilbi of the Local Coordination Committees said government forces had taken full control of Maaret al-Numan, a town of 100,000 on the highway linking Damascus, the capital, with the major city of Aleppo.
Many of its residents had fled as troops swept through Idlib province in recent days.
There was no immediate word on casualties in Maaret al-Numan.
Protests were reported across the country on Friday, with thousands pouring into the streets of the central cities of Homs and Hama, the southern villages of Dael and Otman, coastal cities of Latakia and Banias, the Damascus suburbs of Qudsaya and Douma as well as the capital, Damascus.
In the northeast, about 2000 protesters marched in the towns of Amouda and Qamishli, chanting for the regime’s downfall, the Local Coordination Committees said. In the southern village of Dael, activists said cracks of gunfire could be heard at the centre where a protest was held.
Some of the protesters shouted against Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, the country’s most influential businessman who is widely reviled by Syrians for alleged corruption. On Thursday, apparently as an overture to the protesters, he announced that he will now concentrate on charity work.
“Go play another game Makhlouf,” protesters shouted in Daraa, a city near the Jordanian border where the uprising began in mid-March.
Friday has become the main day for protests in the Arab world, and Syrians have turned out every week in large numbers nationwide, inspired by democratic revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.