DARAA, Syria (AFP) – Human rights activists said at least 15 people were killed on Wednesday in the volatile Syrian city of Daraa, hub of a week of anti-regime protests, as anger reportedly spread to neighbouring towns.
Activists and residents said security forces opened fire on protesters outside the Omari mosque early in the day, after hundreds of people gathered overnight to prevent police from storming it.
A funeral for two of those killed on Wednesday also came under fire, activists said, and shooting continued sporadically during the day.
Wednesday’s killings bring the death toll to 21 in Daraa, a mainly Sunni tribal city near the Jordanian border.
The town has been hit by daily protests for the past week against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, whose Baath party has ruled Syria for 40 years.
An AFP reporter saw two bodies in the city hospital shortly after gunfire erupted on Wednesday afternoon around the mosque, where activists have been holed up for a week.
An 11-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet when security forces allegedly opened fire on a funeral for two of those killed overnight, an activist said.
Activists in Daraa have given conflicting reports on the number of deaths.
One said at least nine people died in Wednesday’s attack on the mosque, including a child, a woman and two members of the security forces, and six more were killed in attacks on a funeral.
“At least thirteen were killed in the overnight attack on the mosque, and we estimate five or six were shot dead during the funeral procession,” said another.
Assad’s government has promised to probe the Daraa killings, but analysts warn that the situation is turning increasingly volatile.
By Wednesday, the rising anger had begun to spread to neighbouring areas.
Residents of Dahel, 25 kilometres (15 miles) north of Daraa, reported four people killed in an anti-regime demonstration in the late afternoon, while an activist said 2,500 people hit the streets in the nearby town of Kharra.
AFP could not independently confirm the reports.
Syria, a country infamous for its iron grip on security that is still under a 1963 emergency law banning demonstrations, is the latest state in the Middle East to witness an uprising against a long-running autocratic regime.
State-run television reported that Assad had fired Daraa Governor Faysal Ahmad Khaltoum, days after protesters burned down the local courthouse.
Damascus has accused foreign parties of stirring up the unrest, and the official SANA news agency gave a different version of the overnight attack on the mosque.
“An armed gang after midnight attacked a medical team in an ambulance at the Omari mosque, killing a doctor, a paramedic and the driver,” before police intervened and made some arrests, SANA said.
There was no way to verify the reports, but an AFP correspondent saw a damaged ambulance on a main street in Daraa.
“It looks like they are going to clean the streets (of the activists) today,” said a visibly shaken witness after a volley of gunfire.
The protesters have not yet clearly been identified, and authorities in Daraa accuse them of being Salafists, an austere branch of Sunni Islam.
State television aired footage of what it said was a stockpile of weapons inside the mosque.
While life in Damascus remained unaffected Wednesday, Daraa’s streets were tense and empty, with shops closed as security forces patrolled the 250,000-strong city.
Entrances to Daraa were sealed off, and vehicles granted access had to pass through two separate intelligence checkpoints manned by armed plain-clothes forces.
There was also no mobile phone network coverage in Daraa on Wednesday.
Six people were killed earlier in a security crackdown on the Daraa demonstrations, including an 11-year-old boy who died on Monday after inhaling tear gas.
Syrian authorities have detained a number of activists and writers demanding major changes including the right to freedom of expression.
However, several women detained last week during a rally outside the interior ministry however were freed on Wednesday, rights groups said.
The crackdown has earned harsh rebukes from the United States, European Union, France and the United Nations.
“We are deeply concerned by the Syrian government’s use of violence, intimidation and arbitrary arrests to hinder the ability of its people to freely exercise their universal rights,” Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, told reporters.
“We condemn these actions.”