AMMAN, (Reuters) – Syrian security forces shot dead at least 44 civilians in attacks on pro-democracy demonstrations that erupted across Syria on Friday, the Syrian National Organisation for Human Rights said on Saturday.
Prominent rights campaigner Ammar Qurabi, who heads of the organisation, said more than half were killed in the northwest province of Idlib, where tanks deployed on Friday to crush large demonstrations against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.
The protests broke out in defiance of a military crackdown that another rights group says has killed more than 800 civilians in the past nine weeks.
The 45-year-old Assad had largely dismissed the protests as serving a foreign-backed conspiracy to sow sectarian strife.
Syrian authorities blame most of the violence on armed groups, backed by Islamists and outside powers, who they say have killed more than 120 soldiers and police. They have recently suggested they believe the protests have peaked.
Syria said on Saturday armed groups killed 17 people on Friday in the provinces of Idlib and Homs to the south.
Echoing language used in previous similar statements, the state news agency said the civilians, police and security forces were killed after armed groups exploited the commitment of police forces to specific instructions by the Interior Ministry “not to shoot, to preserve the lives of civilians.”
It said saboteurs burnt public buildings and police stations in Idlib, injuring eight policemen.
Syria has barred most international media since the protests broke out two months ago, making it impossible to verify independently accounts from activists and officials.
The unrest has posed the gravest challenge to Assad’s rule. In response, he has lifted a 48-year state of emergency and granted citizenship to stateless Kurds, but also sent tanks to several cities to suppress the protests.
Friday’s violence came a day after the United States, which had at first muted its criticism Assad’s handling of the unrest, told him to reform or step down.
“The president can still try to redeem himself by doing what a few leaders in Eastern Europe did, which is leading immediate transformation to a democracy and running himself in a fair elections if he wants,” opposition figure Walid al-Bunni said.
“With all the blood the regime is spilling the protests have been growing and expanding in geographical scope … The Syrians have been humiliated and they will no longer shut up,” he added.
The main weekly Muslim prayers on Fridays are a rallying point for protesters because they offer the only opportunity for large gatherings, and have seen the worst death tolls.
Activists said protests broke out this Friday in the Damascus suburbs, Banias and Latakia on the Mediterranean, the oil producing region of Deir al-Zor, Qamishli in the east and the southern Hauran Plain.
Syrian human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouna said on Friday at least 12 civilians were killed in Maaret al-Numan, in Idlib province, after tanks entered the town to disperse protesters. She said 11 were killed in the central city of Homs, while seven died in Deraa, Latakia, the Damascus suburbs and Hama.
Rights campaigners said Idlib, a relatively prosperous agricultural province, took the brunt of the crackdown on Friday, during which hundreds of Syrians were arrested.
They said those killed included at least five protesters shot by security forces while they were marching from the town of Ariha to join other protests in Idlib.
“They took their dead and went back to Ariha and burnt security and Baath Party headquarters and a Syriatel office,” said one rights campaigner in the area.
Syriatel, Syria’s largest mobile phone operator, belongs to Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, who has expanded his control on various sectors of the economy since Assad succeeded his late father 11 years ago.
Security forces arrested 12 members of the Assyrian Democratic Party, from Syria’s Christian minority, in a raid on their headquarters in Qamishli on Friday, rights activists said.
Two witnesses said security forces fired at demonstrators and chased them in the streets of the Barzeh district of Damascus. Plain clothes police conducted house to house arrests, a resident said.
Security forces also fired live ammunition at a night demonstration in the besieged hill town of Zabadai west of Damascus, a rights campaigner in the area said, adding tanks had deployed at the southern entrance of the nearby town of Madaya.
Activists reported shooting in Banias and the Damascus suburb of Saqba on Friday. Both were subjected to security sweeps earlier this month aimed at crushing dissent.
A witness said security forces fired teargas on protesters in Hama, where around 20,000 had gathered in two separate areas. They also used teargas to disperse around 1,000 protesters in the town of Tel, just north of Damascus, another witness said.
Some protesters called on Friday for freedom, activists said. Others demanded “the overthrow of the regime,” the slogan of uprisings which toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.