Twelve killed in pro-democracy protests in Syria
AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian forces killed at least 12 people on Saturday when they fired on mourners calling for the end of President Bashar al-Assad's rule at mass funerals of pro-democracy protesters shot a day earlier.
Witnesses said the mourners were chanting "Bashar al-Assad, you traitor! Long live Syria, down with Bashar!"
Friday was by far the bloodiest day in over a month of demonstrations to demand political freedoms and an end to corruption, with at least 100 people killed, said two activists.
The protests went ahead despite Assad's decision this week to lift emergency law, in place since his Baath Party seized power 48 years ago. Two lawmakers and a preacher also resigned in protest at the killings of demonstrators.
Aided by his family and a pervasive security apparatus, Assad, 45, has absolute power, having ignored demands to transform the anachronistic autocratic system he inherited when he succeeded his late father, president Hafez al-Assad, in 2000.
Independent human rights organization Sawasiah said security forces killed at least 12 people during the funerals in Damascus and surrounding areas and near the southern town of Izra'a.
"There was a heavy volley of gunfire in our direction as we approached Izra'a to join the funerals of martyrs," a witness in Izra'a told Reuters.
One of the lawmakers to resign, Naser Hariri, said Assad's security forces were unleashing a "frenzy of killings in cold blood." Khalil al-Rifaei also quit the rubber-stamp assembly.
"Security forces are sowing divisions and sectarian strife among Syrians, Muslim and Christian, who are united in their demands for reforms and freedom," Hariri told Reuters.
Rezq Abdulrahman Abazeid, the government-appointed mufti, or Muslim preacher, for Deraa also resigned.
"Being assigned to give fatwas (religious edicts), I submit my resignation as a result of the fall of victims and martyrs by police fire," he told Al Jazeera.
As well as the unrest at funerals in areas near Damascus, Assad's seat of power remained tense on Saturday and many people stayed indoors, one activist told Reuters from the capital.
"This is becoming like a snowball and getting bigger and bigger every week. Anger is rising, the street is boiling," he said.
In the Douma suburb of the city, security forces opened fire at a funeral, wounding three people, witnesses there said, and mourners in Harasta, a town near Damascus, came under fire from security forces, before staging a sit-in to demand the release of detainees arrested in the past few weeks.
Protesters staged another sit-in after a funeral for four people from Irbeen, near Damascus. "We are not leaving until the political prisoners are released," one protester said by phone.
The official SANA news agency said five members of the security forces in the town of Nawa, near Deraa, were killed when they came under attack from what it called an armed criminal group. It said two gang members were killed.
It said a military roadblock in Izra'a was also was attacked and security forces killed one of the armed criminal group.
Friday's violence, in areas stretching from the port city of Latakia to Homs, Hama, Damascus and the southern village of Izra'a, brings the death toll to more than 300, according to activists, since unrest broke out on March 18 in Deraa.
U.S. President Barack Obama condemned Friday's violence and accused Assad of seeking help from Iran. A Syrian government source said in a statement published on official state media Obama's statement "was not based on objective vision."
"This outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end now," Obama said in a statement. "Instead of listening to their own people, President Assad is blaming outsiders while seeking Iranian assistance in repressing Syria's citizens."
France's Foreign Ministry said Paris was "deeply concerned."
"Syrian authorities must give up the use of violence against their citizens. We again call on them to commit without delay to an inclusive political dialogue and to achieve the reforms legitimately demanded by the Syrian people," it said.
A statement by the Local Coordination Committees, a grouping of activists coordinating protests, said the end of emergency law was futile without the release of thousands of political prisoners, most held without trial, and the dismantling of the security apparatus.
In their first joint statement since the protests erupted last month, activists said the abolition of the Baath Party's monopoly on power and the establishment of a democratic political system was central to ending repression in Syria.
Amnesty International said Syrian authorities "have again responded to peaceful calls for change with bullets and batons."
"They must immediately halt their attacks on peaceful protesters and instead allow Syrians to gather freely as international law demands," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa director.
(Writing and additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Editing by Alison Williams)