Syrian forces kill 15 at ‘Good Friday’ protests

Syrian forces shot dead at least 15 people when they moved in to scatter thousands who took to the streets for “Good Friday” protests to test long sought-after freedoms, sources said.

A day after President Bashar al-Assad scrapped decades of emergency rule, his forces fired live rounds at the demonstrations, killing protesters at three separate locations, witnesses and activists told AFP in telephone interviews.

Regime gunfire killed at least eight people in the town of Ezreh, in the southern province of Daraa, epicentre of pro-reform and anti-regime protests that broke out in mid-March, they said.

The security forces also killed six people in the northern Damascus suburb of Douma, while another person was killed in Hirak, also in the region of Daraa where several thousand people rallied, Many others were wounded.

The state news agency SANA reported meanwhile that security forces used tear gas and water cannons “to prevent clashes between protesters and citizens and protect public property.”

“There were some wounded in these confrontations,” which SANA said took place in Harasta and Hajar Asswad near Damascus, as well as in the northern city of Hama and Hasaka in the northeast.

Human rights activists said security forces killed and wounded several protesters in three Damascus neighbourhoods and the central protest hub of Homs, where tens of thousands of people rallied.

The reports could not be verified immediately.

Thousands of protesters also swarmed the streets of the mainly Kurdish northeastern city of Qamishli and the coastal city of Banias.

Assad, in power since replacing his father Hafez as president in 2000, issued decrees Thursday to overturn the state of emergency as well as abolish the state security court and allow citizens to hold peaceful demonstrations.

The demonstrations came after a call by Facebook group The Syrian Revolution 2011 for rallies spanning the Christian and Muslim faiths on “Good Friday,” which commemorates Jesus Christ’s crucifixion.

Friday is also the Muslim day of rest when the biggest demonstrations have been staged across Syria after weekly prayers.

In Kurdish-majority Qamishli, which also has Muslim and Christian communities, protesters said to number around 6,000 chanted slogans calling for freedom.

“Arabs, Syriac (Orthodox) and Kurds against corruption,” one banner said.

In Daraa, a rights activist said thousands called for the fall of the regime and demanded the dissolution of Assad’s feared security services.

Up to 10,000 people marched from mosques to the Daraa governor’s headquarters, as protesters called for “the dissolution of the security services as well as the fall of the regime.”

Elsewhere, “around 10,000 people demonstrated for liberty and for reforms and the unity” of Banias, a religious leader in the northwestern city told AFP.

Assad’s move to scrap the emergency rule and abolish the state security court was the latest in a series of concessions unveiled over the past month to placate protesters.

Activists welcomed Assad’s action on Thursday but called for more changes.

“Lifting the emergency rule and the abolition of the state security court are positive steps but over the next few days we will monitor closely the security forces to see if they violate the law,” said Rami Abdul Rahman of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

A group that said it represented the protesters issued a statement Friday listing their demands and insisting on the need to “stop all attempts by the Syrian tyrannical machine to thwart and circumvent the acquisition of our basic rights and needs.”

The so-called Syrian Local Coordinating Committees appealed for a halt to the torture, killings and arrests of peaceful protesters, while calling for the release of all political prisoners and freedom of the media.

“This government is based on lies, and it is in direct violation of the sanctity and safety of all Syrian nationals,” it said, adding: “They are gambling with our national unity by playing sectarian, ethnic, and religious divisions against each other.”

Amnesty International urged Syrian authorities not to suppress what it termed the “Great Friday” protests.

“It is imperative that these demonstrations are policed sensibly, sensitively and in accordance with international law to avoid further bloodshed on Syria’s streets,” it said.

Human Rights Watch urged the authorities “to permit Syrians to exercise their right to peaceful assembly” on Friday.

“President al-Assad has the opportunity to prove his intentions by allowing (Friday’s) protests to proceed without violent repression.”

Before Friday, security forces and plain-clothes police had killed about 220 people in a brutal crackdown on the protests, which broke out in Damascus on March 15, according to Amnesty.

Syria’s emergency law restricted many civil liberties, including public gatherings and freedom of movement.

The state security court operated outside the ordinary judicial system and prosecuted suspects considered a threat to the government’s authority.