AMMAN, (AFP) – At least 32 people were killed as tens of thousands of protesters rallied for a “day of rage” after Friday prayers, defying warnings of a harsh crackdown, Syrian activists and officials said.
Protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime were held in most major towns, witnesses said, in a repeat of pro-democracy rallies which have become the norm after weekly Muslim prayers.
Security sources shot dead at least 16 people in the protest epicentre of Daraa, rights activists said.
Military officials said four soldiers were killed and two captured by “armed terrorists” in Daraa, though a rights activist said the men had been killed defending protesters.
And in Homs, at least 12 people, including three members of the security forces, were killed in the industrial city, according to an activist and the interior ministry.
“Three police officers … were shot dead today after being targeted by extremist terrorist groups when they performed their duties,” the official SANA news agency quoted a ministry source as saying.
A human rights activist said security forces killed nine people in Homs, 160 kilometres (100 miles) from the capital Damascus.
Ahead of Friday’s bloodshed, dissidents said security forces using live rounds and tear gas have killed more than 450 people since the pro-democracy protests erupted in mid-March.
Friday’s rallies come as the UN Human Rights Council held a special session on Syria in Geneva and the European Union met in Brussels to consider a wide range of sanctions against Damascus.
The call for mass demonstrations was issued on a Facebook page, Syrian Revolution 2011, a motor of the protests in which demonstrators inspired by uprisings across the Arab world are seeking greater freedoms.
Assad’s embattled regime reiterated its running ban on demonstrations, despite having lifted a decades-old law barring them earlier this month, as the Muslim Brotherhood accused the regime of genocide.
Information Minister Adnan Mahmud told AFP the crackdown would continue, saying the “authorities are determined to restore security, stability and peace to the citizens.
The interior ministry appealed to Syrians not to join the protests and warned that unauthorised rallies would not be tolerated.
It called on “brother citizens to contribute in an effective way to stability and security… by not staging demonstrations or sit-ins for any reason without official permission,” it said, quoted by SANA.
“The laws in force in Syria will be applied to preserve the security of citizens and the country’s stability,” it added.
Similar protests after Muslim weekly prayers on April 22 ended in chaos, with more than 100 people killed when security forces fired on demonstrators with tear gas and live rounds. Hundreds of others were detained.
In Banias, about 10,000 people turned out on Friday, shouting “liberty, solidarity with Daraa” and “down with the regime.”
In Deir Ez-Zor, northeast of the capital, two demonstrators were beaten with batons and electrical cables after 1,000 people emerged from a mosque and were dispersed by security forces, rights activist Nawwaf al-Bashir said.
In Ar-Raqqa, also northeast of Damascus, between 300 and 400 people in the streets cried “All powerful God, cause the siege of Daraa to be lifted,” activist Abdullah al-Khalil said.
Some 15,000 people turned out in the majority Kurdish city of Qamishli and neighbouring towns, shouting “national unity” and “with our soul and with our blood we will sacrifice ourselves for Daraa,” activists said.
Demonstrations were also staged in Saqba and Midan, near the capital, and in the industrial city of Homs, where thousands of people could be seen shouting “down with the regime” on videos fed to the Internet.
In Daraa itself, security forces opened fire as “thousands of people” from neighbouring towns tried to “bring aid and food” to the city, besieged by the army since Monday, an activist at the scene said.
Also in Daraa, “an armed terrorist group attacked a military post at dawn,” SANA quoted a military official as saying. “Four soldiers were killed and two were captured.”
Water and power have been cut in Daraa as the situation worsened after between 3,000 and 5,000 troops backed by tanks stormed the town on Monday.
Syria has been rocked since March 15 by increasingly strident anti-regime demonstrations.
The Muslim Brotherhood said “every Syrian citizen knows the regime is perpetrating genocide on Syrian territory, which is targeting the desire for emancipation expressed by the revolt of young patriots.”
Meanwhile, a US draft resolution calls on the UN Human Rights Council to agree to “urgently dispatch an independent, international commission of inquiry… to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law” in Syria.
Campaigners said behind-the-scenes haggling was underway on the proposal after world powers clashed over Syria in the UN Security Council, with Russia and China maintaining their block on condemning the violence.
Advocacy group Human Rights Watch called on the council to investigate the deadly crackdown on Syrian protesters and to “strongly condemn repression of peaceful protests.”
In Brussels, the European Union was poised to punish the savagery in Syria with “large agreement” among member states for action against the brutal crackdown, a senior EU diplomat said.