24 Mar 2011

Syria: more protests in Deraa as number of dead rises

Around 20,000 people have lined the streets of Deraa for the funerals of protesters killed in clashes with security forces. A Syrian journalist tells Channel 4 News the situation “is out of control”.

Syrian nationals demonstarte outside the Syrian consulate in Dubai (Getty)

At least 25 people are now thought to have been killed during violent clashes in Deraa.

On Wednesday security forces in Syria opened fire on hundreds of youths at the northern entrance to the city, according to witnesses.

It is estimated at least 32 civilians have been killed since Friday.

Around 20,000 Syrians chanting freedom slogans have been marching at the funerals of nine protesters.

“God Syria, Freedom. The blood of martyrs is not spilt in waste!” they chanted in Deraa’s southern cemetery.

The nine were among at least 25 demonstrating youths who were fired at by security forces on Wednesday, residents said.

Syrian soldiers wielding AK-47s roamed the streets of the southern city. Secret police and special police units wearing all black have been more visible in Deraa since the protests erupted last Friday.

The army has so far taken a secondary role, mostly manning checkpoints, in confronting demonstrations that erupted last week in Syria’s agricultural heartland, demanding political freedoms and an end to corruption.

In response, under pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has assured that he did not give the order for security forces to fire at protesters and has formed a commitee to raise living standards and look into scrapping emergency that has governed Syria for 48 years.

However, leading opposition figures and exiled dissedents have rejected the President’s moves as not going far enough, saying Assad had failed to take immediate measures to meet the calls for the release of thousands of political prisoners and allow freedom of expression.

Witnesses said hundreds of soldiers patrolled Deraa’s main streets on Thursday as heavy rain fell, with scores manning intersections to prevent public gatherings.

Travellers on a main highway near Deraa said they saw convoys of trucks carrying up to 2,000 soldiers heading to Deraa on Wednesday night.

A Syrian journalist currently in London, who does not want to be identified, told Channel 4 News people were talking of "hundreds" of bodies in the streets: 

"The situation is out of control. It's not clear to what extent the government is directing what's going on in Deraa.

"Insiders talk of a split at the highest levels. The president sent a delegation to the city at the weekend, and protesters handed over a list of demands.

"There was a sense of optimism, and the governor was fired. Forty-eight hours later there was a massacre in the middle of the night.

"Protesters holed themselves up in a mosque. Locals set up tents outside to act as human shields. Then just after midnight yesterday, security forces reportedly forced their way in, killing five.

"A curfew was imposed yesterday, and we're hearing that unarmed civilians were being shot on sight.

"No-one really knows how bad it is in Deraa. Electricity, internet and phone connections have been sporadic. People were talking of "hundreds" of bodies in the streets on Wednesday afternoon, but that estimate was quickly reduced. With a siege on the city, we will probably not know the true death toll for many days."

Political power

Syria’s Baathist rulers have a history of crushing opposition violently in their 48 years in power.

In 1982, President Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, sent troops to the conservative religious city of Hama to crush the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, killing thousands.

Syria’s Alawite rulers run a country which is majority Sunni. Protesters in Deraa, a mainly Sunni city, have shouted slogans against the government’s alliance with Shi’ite Iran, breaking a taboo on criticising Syrian foreign policy.

Parents whose sons were missing in Deraa after they came under attack from security forces on Wednesday were trying to find out what happened to them, residents said.

“People are still hysterical. They do not know whether their sons are dead or alive. No one yet knows how many people are dead. There could be scores,” one resident said.

“I counted six bodies near the 26th of October Square at 3:30 p.m. yesterday,” said one Deraa resident who declined to be named for fear of being traced and arrested.

Authorities have also arrested leading activist Mazen Darwish, the head of the Syrian Freedom of Expression Centre.

Read more on Syria: the world is now watching as violence grips Deraa

There were unconfirmed reports that dozens more bodies were taken to Tafas hospital outside the city, they added.

Deraa, on the Jordanian border, has long been a stronghold of the Baath Party, which recruits from the region. But in recent days it has become a focus of unprecedented protests against President Assad.

Assad, a close ally of Iran, a key player in neighbouring Lebanon and supporter of militant groups opposed to Israel, has dismissed rising demands for reform in Syria, a country of 20 million people run by the Baath Party since a 1963 coup.

The Baath Party has banned opposition and enforced emergency laws since 1963. But the wave of Arab unrest which has toppled leaders in Tunisia and Egypt now presents Assad with the biggest challenge to his rule since he succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for 30 years until his death in 2000.