|Protesters continue to gather in Clock Square demanding the toppling of the regime [Reuters]|
Protesters in Homs, Syria’s third largest city, have begun a three-day strike and vowed to continue demonstrations in Clock Square after security forces opened fire and used teargas on Monday night to disperse a sit-in.
“We have announced a three-day general strike in the city starting from today to show our objection,” Khalid, a shop keeper from the city who did not wish to give his last name for fear of reprisal, said on Tuesday.
He said the general strike in the city, an industrial powerhouse, had been announced from the Grand Mosque in Homs.
Locals described Homs, a city of 800,000 people, as looking “like a war zone”, with all shops and businesses closed for the strike.
According to eyewitnesses hundreds of security agents have taken up positions in and around Clock Square, sealing the area off, despite the efforts of 100 more protestors to join the central square.
“They have blocked all the roads to the square with fire trucks,” said Abu Mohammed, a local university student.
“It’s like a war zone. There is glass everywhere and we can see snipers on the roof tops.”
Funerals for four people killed during the crackdown on protests in Homs are taking place on Tuesday, according to an eyewitness who is taking part.
“Mourners are chanting: ‘We sacrifice our blood and our soul to the martyrs,'” said Abu Haider, a car painter from the city.
Tuesday’s events cames as the cabinet passed bills on legislative decrees to end the state of emergency in Syria.
According to the country’s official SANA news agency the government also abolished the supreme state security court, which handled the trials of political prisoners, and approved a new law allowing the right to peaceful protests
However, the final decision must still be passed by parliament before being signed into law by Bashar al-Assad, the president.
‘Great Day of Protests’
Tens of thousands of protesters had gathered on Monday for the funerals of dozens of people killed by security forces a day earlier during anti-government protests in and around Homs.
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Following the funerals, protesters attempted to set up tents in the city’s Clock Square, vowing to continue a peaceful sit-in demanding the toppling of the regime.
The gathering was broken up late on Monday night after armed thugs and security forces used live ammunition and tear gas.
One eyewitness said security forces on Monday night opened fire on the protesters from roof tops surrounding the square and from street level.
“When they saw we were not moving they shut off the street lights and opened fire,” said Abu Mohammed.
“People want to go to the square, but they are very afraid of the armed thugs after the shooting last night.
“But Friday has now been declared ‘The Great Day of Protests’ and we will go back to the square.”
At least five people were killed in the overnight crackdown on protestors, according to Walid Saffour, head of the London-based Syrian Human Rights Committee.
However, he said the exact number was difficult to obtain as eyewitnesses said they saw security personnel removing some of the bodies of people who had been shot.
“We gathered in Clock Square to express our anger at the killing of our brothers and sons,” Khalid, who participated in the protests, said. “We want freedom, not killing or destroying our country.”
The uprising in Homs was in part sparked by the death of Sheikh Baddar Abu Moussa, leader of the Fawa’rah tribe, while in detention, according Safour.
Safour, whose family are from Homs, said a photograph of Sheikh Abu Moussa’s body showed clear signs of torture.
“His beard had been burned in places and his chest and back had dark marks on them,” he said.
Sheikh Abu Moussa was arrested on April 10 while participating in a demonstration after Friday prayers.
His funeral the following day triggered protests calling for freedom and the toppling of the Syrian regime.
In a statement on Monday to SANA, the state news agency, the interior ministry blamed “armed groups” for killing and wounding several members of Syria’s security forces in Homs on Sunday.
However, at least one eyewitness said the troops were killed by friendly fire from other Syrian forces deployed across Homs.
The information is not possible to verify as journalists are barred from reporting from Homs.
Ausama Monajed, one of the leaders of the Syrian youth opposition, said the regime was using the claim of armed groups as an excuse to fire on peaceful protesters while hoping to avoid criticism from the international community.
“The regime’s use of force is completely unjustified,” he said.
Khalid, the eyewitness to Monday’s demonstrations, said: “The security forces killed the protesters and then say criminal gangs or armed groups killed them. We don’t believe the government.”
The interior ministry on Tuesday blamed armed groups of Salafists, ultra-conservative Muslims, for the killings of military, police and civilians.
“Those groups aim to create chaos and terrify the Syrian people, exploiting the reform and freedom process launched within a comprehensive programme according to specific timetables announced by al-Assad during his speech to the new government,” said the statement run on SANA.
The accusation was dismissed by protesters on the ground in Homs.
“There was no Salafists among us,” Omar, a 32-year-old student of Islamic law, said.
“If there are some Muslim men or scholars with long beards that does not mean they are radical or Salafists.
“Homs people are moderate Muslims and they used to live with Christians and other sects without problems for years.
“The government says there are radical groups in order to justify the crackdown on us. We are peaceful civilians who want freedom.”
Meanwhile, in Damascus, the capital, 15 students were injured at a protest on the campus of Damascus University, according to a student who was present.
The witness, who wished to remain anonymous, said secret police and students from the Baath Party’s student union attacked them with clubs and electric rods.
About 140 students gathered outside the Faculty of Medicine and chanted “Free Syria” and called for an end to massacres in the country.
The witness said some of the students had been injured by electric rods used to control cattle.
The students are refusing to attend classes in a three-day strike ending Friday to show their opposition to the regime for its brutal crackdown on peaceful protests.