By Douglas Hamilton
BEIRUT, April 13 (Reuters) - Four protesters were shot dead in Syria on Friday and an army officer was killed on the second day of a nationwide ceasefire meant to open a path to peaceful political dialogue after 13 months of extreme violence.
The fatal shootings occurred as demonstrators rallied against President Bashar al-Assad, who has accepted the terms of the United Nations-brokered ceasefire which took effect on Thursday and calls on the army and rebels to stop shooting.
Syrians took to the streets across the country in small demonstrations after Friday’s Muslim prayers, trusting that the two-day-old ceasefire would protect them from the army bullets that have frightened off peaceful protesters for months.
Activists said security forces came out in strength in many cities to prevent protesters forming major anti-Assad rallies.
A slogan carried by protesters in the Qadam district of Damascus said: “Bashar may be able to laugh at the whole world - except for the Syrian people” Another said: “The new comedy is the ceasefire”
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the anti-Assad Local Coordination Committees said two people were killed as marchers tried to converge on a central square in the city of Hama.
Troops shot one person dead as worshippers left a mosque in Nawa in the southern Deraa province, where the uprising began. A third was killed by security forces in the town of Salqeen in the northwestern province of Idlib, they said, and a fourth was shot dead in the town of Deraya, in Damascus province.
Syria’s state news agency SANA blamed two of the deaths on the opposition, saying an “armed terrorist group” shot dead the man in Salqeen and attributing the death of the Hama protester to a shot fired by a fellow demonstrator.
It also said “terrorists” shot dead an army major as he drove to work at his unit. Armed groups were seeking to “destroy any effort to find a political solution to the crisis” in Syria, SANA said.
Rallies filmed by activists were far smaller than the huge, chanting crowds seen in major cities at the start of the uprising 13 months ago and on several occasions in 2011, before ruthless suppression drove all protest off the streets.
Activists reported shots fired in the air at several locations on Friday to scare off crowds.
Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman said there was no major demonstration on Friday. He estimated the number of Assad opponents marching in public totalled tens of thousands.
In Damascus, an activist reported a heavy security presence across the capital. Demonstrators threw stones at security forces in Jobar district, and there were demonstrations in the Barzeh, Kafr Souseh and Midan quarters.
Along with the ceasefire and withdrawal of military forces from population centres, the peace plan of U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan calls for talks with the opposition aimed at a “political transition”.
Assad also agreed to “respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully”. But he has not withdrawn troops, tanks and artillery from urban centres.
Burhan Ghalioun, head of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), said on Thursday he did not trust Damascus to allow the renewal of protests.
“While we call on the Syrian people to protest strongly ... we ask them to be cautious because the regime will not respect the ceasefire and will shoot,” he told Reuters.
The Syrian Interior Ministry said only authorised demonstrations would be permitted by police.
“This is ridiculous,” said an activist called Musab from Hama city. “They will not give you permission and you will be taken to jail if you ask for it”.