Death toll rises as Syria crackdown continues

At least four deaths reported in Deraa as security forces storm a mosque after shelling the flashpoint city.

    Syrian forces have continued their military crackdown in the flashpoint city of Deraa, seizing control of a mosque and shooting dead the son of its imam, witnesses say.

    Four people were reportedly killed as the southern city came under heavy shelling and gunfire on Saturday, as residents attempted to bury those killed a day earlier during Friday's "day of rage" protests against the government.

    "We are totally besieged. It is a tragedy. Many houses are levelled by shelling from the army. For the past six days we haven’t seen an ambulance," one witness told Al Jazeera via telephone, as gunfire rang out in the background.

    "We are keeping the bodies of the dead in refrigerator trucks, but many bodies are still lying in the streets. Many of the bodies are bloated and are reeking."


    Residents said Syrian forces fired at protesters in neighbourhoods throughout the city, as tanks reportedly surrounded the Omari mosque in the north.

    "They are shooting at houses, both the tanks and the soldiers. The most intense fire is at the Omari mosque," one resident told Al Jazeera.

    "The bullets are flying straight over my head as we are talking: It's so close. The humanitarian situation is very bad: There's no food, no medicine, no electricity. We are collecting rain water to drink," the second witness said.

    Witnesses later told the Reuters news agency that Syrian forces had stormed the mosque, following heavy shelling.

    Al Jazeera could not independently corroborate the witness accounts.

    Heavy gunfire

    Al Jazeera's Rula Amin, reporting from the capital, Damascus, said the latest developments reveal how quickly the situation in Deraa is deteriorating. 

    Rula Amin reports from Damascus on the latest developments

    "In the past few days, Syrian television has been putting people on television saying that they are confessing that they belong to terrorist groups and that they were given money and weapons from different people in Deraa, including the imam of the Omari mosque," she said.

    Reports said the imam's son was one of those killed on Saturday, shot dead because he refused to reveal where his father was hiding.

    "We are told by residents that the imam was always asking for calm, for dialogue, and when I went to Deraa and I met him myself he did not say that people should carry guns or should fire at security forces.

    "He was adamant that people have the right to protest, that things need to change in Syria.

    Referring to the imam, our correspondent said: "He said something to me I will not forget: 'For the first time in my life, I feel like a free man' ... so people in Deraa are shocked that these accusations are being levelled at [him].

    "They see him as a voice of moderation, and when they see someone like him is being targeted by security forces, they are scared and do not know what is coming next."

    Baniyas rally

    Thousands of people were rallying in the coastal city of Baniyas late on Saturday, holding candles and chanting "the people want to topple the regime" and "the Syrian people are one".

    In Damascus, about 50 women marched near the parliament, holding signs in support of Deraa. Rights campaigners said eleven of the demonstrators were arrested.

    Meanwhile, Adel Safar, the recently appointed prime minister, said his government would draw up a "complete plan" of political, judicial and economic reforms, state news agency SANA reported.

    SANA quoted Safar as saying he would set up committees to propose new laws and amendments to legislation in those areas.

    Activists said at least 62 people had been killed in nationwide clashes on Friday, as when tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets.

    Meanwhile, authorities said nine members of the security forces were killed by "terrorist groups".

    Pro-democracy protests were held against the government of president Bashar al-Assad in most cities and major towns after Muslim weekly prayers, as on past Fridays for a month.


    The protesters pledged new countrywide demonstrations from Sunday at the start of what they called "the week of breaking the siege".

    Demonstrations are also expected to take place on Sunday in Deraa, which has been besieged by security forces since Monday, along with the Damascus suburb of Douma.

    Activists have called for rallies on Monday in Damascus, Tuesday in the northern towns of Baniyas and Jableh, Wednesday in Homs, Talbiseh and in Tall Kalakh on the border with Lebanon, and night vigils on Thursday.

    Friday's deadly Day of Rage protests gripped many Syrian cities and towns, the London-based rights group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told the AFP news agency, with 66 people reported killed, 33 of them in Deraa.

    The Committee of the Martyrs of the 15 March Revolution gave a slightly lower overall death toll for Friday, saying 56 people were killed, including 33 in Deraa and 25 in the central province of Homs.

    The group said in a statement after the bloodshed that a total of 582 people have been killed since protests erupted on March 15 by security forces firing live rounds and tear gas.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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