AMMAN (Reuters) - At least one man was injured when Syrian security forces opened fired to disperse a night-time demonstration on Saturday in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, scene of growing protests against Baathist rule, a witness said.
“I was hearing the bullets and the protesters chanting ‘the people want the overthrow of the regime’ at the same time,” the witness, a resident of the city, said by telephone.
Demonstrations have been held nightly in Deir al-Zor and other cities and towns to circumvent heavy security which has intensified in recent weeks after street demonstrations grew in numbers and tanks were deployed in and around urban centers.
Human rights campaigners said a night-time rally took place on Saturday in the town of Binish in the northwestern province of Idlib in protest against arrests on Friday, when the biggest demonstrations typically occur after weekly prayers.
In the southern plain of Hauran, the cradle of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, troops encircled the town of Hirak, which had been spared the kind of military assault that had caused hundreds of deaths in the region’s towns and cities in the past few weeks, witnesses and activists said.
The Syrian National Organization for Human Rights said security forces shot dead 12 demonstrators on Friday during protests in 91 locations across Syria.
“The authorities are still pursuing the calculated course of using excessive violence and live ammunition to confront mass demonstrations,” the organization said in a statement.
Scores of people in all walks of life had been arrested including a doctor, musician and an amateur boxer, it said.
It said the killings occurred in rural districts around Damascus, in southern Syria, the northwestern province of Idlib, the coast and the central city of Homs.
The bloodshed this week appeared to be on a lesser scale than recently. On Friday, activists put the death toll at eight. They said information was difficult to obtain because of communications and Internet disruptions imposed by the authorities.
State television said nine people, including police and civilians, were killed by armed groups on Friday. The official state news agency SANA said on Saturday customs officials seized 36 rifles in a truck coming from Turkey.
Authorities blame armed groups, Islamists and foreign agents for the violence and say at least 120 soldiers and police officers have been killed since the protests erupted in March.
Rights groups estimate at least 1,000 civilians have been killed by security forces, the army and gunmen loyal to Assad in the past 10 weeks. They said 10,000 people have been arrested, with beatings and torture commonplace.
Leaders of the Group of Eight powers meeting in France on Friday condemned the violence and called on Damascus to respond to the Syrian people’s “legitimate demands for freedom.”
The United States and the European Union have already imposed sanctions against Assad and other Syrian officials. Russia and China have been more reticent in denouncing Assad.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the bodies of seven protesters killed on April 29 near the southern city of Deraa were handed to their families on Saturday, including two which it said showed marks of torture.
“We have the testimony of hundreds who were tortured, including scores of videos,” Observatory Director Rami Abdel Rahman said by telephone from Britain.
Witness reports of the violence, as well as official accounts, are difficult to verify independently because Assad’s government barred most international media from the country not long after the start of the unrest, which was inspired by democratic revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.
Editing by Andrew Dobbie