BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian forces killed at least 70 protesters Friday, activists said, one of the bloodiest days since the start of an 11-week revolt against the authoritarian rule of President Bashar al-Assad.
Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets on Friday in defiance of security forces determined to crush the uprising, and some activists said the death toll could hit 100.
Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said at least 60 people were killed in Hama, where Assad’s father Hafez crushed an armed revolt 29 years ago by killing up to 30,000 people and razing parts of the city.
A political activist in Hama said tens of thousands of people were attending the funerals of dead protesters on Saturday, and that more protests were planned later in the day.
“Anger is very high in the city, people will never be silent or scared. The whole city is shut today and people are calling for a three-day strike,” the activist, who gave his name as Omar, told Reuters by phone from the city.
“We expect protests after the evening prayers.”
Residents and activists said that security forces and snipers fired at demonstrators who thronged Hama Friday.
On top of the casualties there, Syrian human rights group Sawasiah said one person was killed in Damascus and two in the northwestern province of Idlib. Seven people were killed in the town of Rastan in central Syria, which has been under military assault and besieged by tanks since Sunday.
Rights groups say security forces have killed more than 1,000 civilians during the uprising, provoking international outrage at Assad’s ruthless handling of the demonstrators.
Assad has tried brute force and political concessions, often simultaneously, to quell protests. The tactic has so far failed to stop the revolt against 41 years of rule by the Assad family, members of the minority Alawite sect in mainly Sunni Syria.
In Deraa, birthplace of the revolt, hundreds defied a military curfew and demonstrated Friday, two residents said.
Syrian forces fired on demonstrations in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor and in Damascus’ Barzeh district. Activists and residents said thousands marched in the northwestern province of Idlib, the Kurdish northeast, several Damascus suburbs, the city of Homs and the towns of Madaya and Zabadani in the west.
“It is worth noting that Hama and Idlib, where the biggest demonstrations occurred, used to be the stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood,” said one activist who declined to be named.
“The number of people who took to the streets could be a message from the (Muslim) Brotherhood to the regime that: “now we are taking part in the revolution in full weight.””
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington was “deeply concerned” by reports that Internet service and some mobile phone networks had been shut down in much of Syria.
“We condemn any effort to suppress the Syrian people’s exercise of their rights to free expression, assembly and association,” she said in a statement. “Attempting to silence the population cannot prevent the transition currently taking place... the Syrian people will find a way to make their voices heard.”
Syrian authorities released a prominent activist Saturday who had been in jail since 2008, Abdulrahman said.
Ali Abdallah, in his 50s, had criticised Syria’s ally Iran. He was a member of the Damascus Declaration, a rights movement named after a document calling for a democratic constitution and an end of the Baath Party’s five-decade monopoly on power.
Syrian authorities blame the violence on armed groups backed by Islamists and foreign powers, and say the groups have fired on civilians and security forces alike. Authorities have prevented most international media from operating in Syria, making it impossible to verify accounts of the violence.
Activists say there have been some instances of citizens resisting security forces with personal weapons, and of security police shooting soldiers who refused to fire at protesters.
Assad has sent in tanks to crush demonstrations in some flashpoints but has also offered some reforms, such as an amnesty for political prisoners and a national dialogue — measures dismissed by opposition figures as too little too late.
The United States, the European Union and Australia have imposed sanctions on Syria, but perhaps because of reluctance to get entangled in another confrontation after Libya, their reaction has been less vehement than some activists had hoped.
Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, editing by Tim Pearce