Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Deaths as Syrian forces 'storm mosque'

At least six reportedly killed, but authorities blame "armed gang" for
violence in southern city of Daraa.

Last Modified: 23 Mar 2011 Al Jazeera

Security forces have attempted to storm a mosque in the southern Syrian
city of Daraa, reportedly killing at least six people.

The government, however, blamed the violence on an "armed gang", according
to the state-run SANA news agency.

Residents said heavy gunfire was heard near the Omari mosque in the early
hours of Wednesday in the city, which has been the scene of
anti-government protests since Friday.

"It seems that security forces may be trying to storm the complex. It is
not clear because electricity has been cut off. Tear gas is also being
used," one resident told the Reuters news agency.

Protesters calling for political freedoms and an end to corruption had
said earlier that they were going to remain in the mosque until their
demands were met.

Mohammed Al Abdallah, an exiled Syrian rights activist living in the US,
said he had been communicating with people in Daraa who told him that a
doctor was among those killed.

"Security forces opened fire, they used bombs and live ammunition," he
told Al Jazeera. "There are many injuries, including women and children."

He said electricity had been cut off before the attack and that security
forces were preventing ambulances from entering the centre of Daraa, where
the mosque is located.

Al Jazeera could not immediately confirm the reports and mobile phone
network appeared to be disrupted in Daraa.

Rula Amin, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Damascus, said the incident was a
"very serious development" that could trigger protests, and the prospect
of further violence.

She also said the use of violence against protesters indicated the
government had abandoned its earlier offer of dialogue.

"With the killing of these six people overnight, it seems that the
government is opting for the choice of using force to crack down on the
protesters not dialogue as it had indicated," she said.

She reported that there was a heavy security presence in Daraa, with the
army, anti-terror police and riot police all deployed in the city.
Journalists are not being allowed to visit the city, and several of those
who attempted to do so last night had their equipment confiscated by

Checkpoints have been set up by security forces at all entries to the city.

Government version

Syria's state-run television station reported that an "armed gang"
attacked an ambulance at the Omari mosque, killing four people.

The victims were a doctor, a paramedic, a policeman and the ambulance
driver, according to SANA.

"The security forces who were near the area intervened, hitting some and
arresting others," the report said, without elaborating.

The violence came a day after the United Nations' human rights chief
called for a probe into a weekend crackdown, when several protesters were
killed in Daraa.

Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called on Syrian
authorities to carry out a transparent probe into the crackdown and to
halt the excessive use of force.

"The government should carry out an independent, transparent and effective
investigation into the killings of the six protesters during the events of
18 and 20 March," Rupert Colville, a spokesman for Pillay, said on

"We are greatly concerned by the recent killings of protesters in Syria
and reiterate the need to put an immediate halt to the excessive use of
force against peaceful protesters, especially the use of live ammunition."

Colville said that the use of excessive force was a "clear violation of
international law" and that perpetrators could be prosecuted.

"People have the legitimate right to express their grievances and demands
to their government, and we urge the Syrian government to enter into a
broad, meaningful dialogue with the protesters in an attempt to address
those grievances," he said.

Emergency law

Demonstrations have been held in a number of Syrian cities in recent days
despite the country's emergency law, which bans protests and has been in
place since 1963.

Wednesday's incident brings to 12 the number of people reportedly killed
by security forces since the start of the demonstrations on March 18,
including an 11-year-old boy who died after inhaling tear gas on Monday.

A Syrian official told the AFP news agency that the governor of Daraa had
been sacked following the killings.

The official, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said
Faisal Kalthoum was fired from his position on Tuesday.

Al Jazeera's Amin said that Kalthoum had not officially been sacked but
had not been seen in public for the past three days.

She said the latest round of protests were "unprecedented", but had not
yet spread to other cities.

"It's a very serious challenge to the regime here. These are unprecedented
demonstrations, they have been going on since Friday, and this has not
happened in Syria for a long, long time. And it seems people are not
detered by heavy security deployment there.

"So far, most of the protests have been confined to Daraa and the villages
around it. It has not spread to Damascus yet, or elsewhere in Syria,
despite calls by opposition and activists for people to take to the

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