AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian security forces opened fire on protesters at a funeral on Sunday, witnesses said, and an announcement that President Bashar al-Assad would lift 48-years of emergency rule failed to quell fury on the streets.
Two witnesses said security forces killed three mourners when they opened fire on a funeral for a man killed the day before, which turned into a demonstration on a highway outside the town of Talbiseh, north of the central city of Homs.
One resident said he counted five tanks and saw soldiers wearing combat gear deployed around the town.
Chants at protests on Sunday, Syria’s Independence Day holiday, more hostile toward Assad than at previous marches held in recent weeks, a sign that a promise to lift the country’s hated emergency law had failed to appease the public.
Opposition figures say they believe new laws that will replace the emergency rule are likely to retain severe curbs on political freedoms.
Thousands of demonstrators called for Bashar’s overthrow at another funeral, held in Hirak town northeast of the southern city of Deraaa, for soldier Mohammad Ali Radwan al-Qoman, whose relatives believe he was tortured by the security forces.
“Freedom, freedom Syria, Bashar get out,” people chanted, their slogans audible in a telephone call with one of the mourners at the funeral.
A relative, who declined to be named, said Qoman’s family were told he had been accidentally electrocuted at his unit, but the 20-year-old conscript had signs of beating to his feet and doctors at the local hospital said there were signs of torture.
Assad named a new cabinet last week, and in a speech to his ministers on Saturday said legislation to replace the emergency law should be ready by next week. But he did not address protesters’ demands to curb Syria’s security apparatus and dismantle its authoritarian system.
Protests against Assad’s authoritarian rule began in Deraa after teenagers were arrested for scrawling pro-democracy graffiti more than a month ago. Demonstrations have spread across large parts of the country of 20 million people, inspired by uprisings in other parts of the Arab world this year.
The death toll, which rights groups put at more than 200 people, continues to rise. Assad says Syria is the target of a conspiracy and authorities blame the violence on armed gangs and “infiltrators” supplied with weapons from Lebanon and Iraq.
The unprecedented unrest has spread across the authoritarian state, posing the sternest challenge yet to Assad, who assumed the presidency in 2000 when his father, Hafez al-Assad, died after 30 years in power.
In the coastal city of Banias, around 2,000 people marched with some chanting “the people want the overthrow of Bashar.”
“No Sunni, no Alawite: freedom is what we want,” they chanted. Assad is a member of the Alawite minority sect in a country that is predominately Sunni Muslim.
They called for the arrest of pro-Assad militia members, known as “al-shabbiha.” Residents say they killed five people Banias last week following demonstration against Assad’s rule.
Funerals were also held on Sunday in the port city of Latakia for two protesters who were killed in a confrontation with security forces at a protest on Friday, a rights activist in contact with Latakia said.
The funerals turned into protests and two mourners were injured by bullets when security forces intervened to stop the demonstrations, the activist said.
In rallies elsewhere, thousands of Syrians chanted slogans calling for political freedoms at independence day celebrations.
“The people want freedom,” several hundred people shouted at the grave of independence leader Ibrahim Hananu in Syria’s second city Aleppo, which has been mostly free of pro-democracy protests that erupted more than a month ago in the south.
Hundreds also turned out in the southern city of Suweida, in the heart of the country’s Druze heartland. They chanted “God, Syria, freedom, that’s all,” before coming under attack from Assad loyalists, a woman at the demonstration said.
“They came at us with sticks and also hit us with the pictures they were carrying of Bashar — the same president who was talking about freedom yesterday,” she said.
The head of Germany’s intelligence service was quoted on Sunday as saying the Assad dynasty’s history of crushing dissent meant a North Africa-style uprising was unlikely.
“Remember that the father of the current president a few decades back murdered as many as 30,000 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama,” Ernst Uhrlau told Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper, referring to Hafez al-Assad’s crushing of an uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982.
Writing by Dominic Evans and Khaled Yacoub Oweis; Editing by Peter Graff