AMMAN (Reuters) - Thousands demanded the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad on Monday at the funerals of 17 protesters killed in the Syrian city of Homs as pro-democracy protests intensified despite a promise to lift emergency law.
Human rights campaigners said the 17 had been killed late on Sunday during protests against the death in custody of a tribal leader in Homs, 165 km (100 miles) north of Damascus.
“From alleyway to alleyway, from house to house, we want to overthrow you, Bashar,” the mourners chanted, according to a witness at the funeral.
The Interior Ministry described the wave of unrest in Syria as an armed insurrection, in a statement that human rights activists said signaled an harsher response.
Protests against the authoritarian rule of Assad’s Baath Party erupted in the southern city of Deraa more than a month ago, and have spread across the country.
The government 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 statement said armed groups belonging to ultra conservative Salafist Muslim organizations had killed security forces and civilians, mutilated their bodies, destroyed property and blocked public roads.
“... (the events) are an armed insurrection by armed groups belonging to Salafist organizations, especially in the cities of Homs and Banias,” it said.
“Some of these groups have called for armed insurrection under the motto of Jihad to set up a Salafist state.
“What they did is an ugly crime severely punished by law. Their objective is to spread terror across Syria ... using the march of freedom and reform that was launched according to a timetable by President Assad in his guiding speech.”
Assad said on Saturday that legislation to replace emergency law dating back nearly half a century should be in place by next week.
But his pledge did little to appease protesters calling for political freedoms and an end to corruption in one of the Arab world’s most tightly controlled states. Rights campaigners say more than 200 people have been killed since the protests began.
“Homs is boiling. The security forces and the regime thugs have been provoking armed tribes for a month now,” a rights activist told Reuters from the city.
Civilians who took to the streets “were shot at in cold blood,” he said.
Further north, in Jisr al-Shughour, 1,000 people called on Monday for “the overthrow of the regime,” echoing the chants of protesters who overthrew leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, at the funeral of a man who they said had been killed by security forces.
The demonstrations present the gravest challenge yet to Assad, who succeeded his late father Hafez al-Assad in 2000. Assad the elder ruled Syria with an iron fist for 30 years. Bashar relaxed several bans on private enterprise but kept intact the autocratic political system he had inherited.
Western countries have condemned the violence but shown no sign of taking action against Assad, who consolidated his father’s anti-Israel alliance with Iran and has backed the Islamist groups Hamas and Hezbollah while intermittently holding indirect peace talks with Israel.
In the main port city of Latakia, activists reported deaths from clashes overnight.
“The pattern is repeating itself,” one activist said. “Protests, killings by security forces, funerals turned into protests, and more killing and vehement slogans against Bashar.”
Wissam Tarif, a rights activist in contact with people in Syria, said there had been five deaths in Latakia overnight, when security forces opened fire on protesters. Ammar Qurabi, another activist, said he had the names of two dead protesters.
At another funeral on Sunday in the town of Talbiseh, north of Homs, two witnesses said security forces had shot dead three mourners.
The official state news agency said “armed criminals” had opened fire on security forces, killing a policeman and wounding 11 others. It also said a military unit had fought gunmen on the highway heading north from Homs, killing three of them.
Opposition figures say they believe any legislation that replaces emergency rule is likely to retain severe curbs on political freedoms.
Syria has repeatedly blamed the unrest on foreign powers, and the Washington Post reported on Monday that the United States has secretly funded Syrian opposition groups.
The State Department said on Monday that the United States was not working to undermine the Syrian government, but trying to support democratic goals as it does elsewhere in the world.
The Washington Post cited diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks showing that the State Department had funneled up to $6 million since 2006 to Syrian exiles to operate a London-based satellite TV channel and finance activities inside Syria.
Barada TV began broadcasting in April 2009 and has ramped up operations to cover the protests.
Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Kevin Liffey