DARAA, Syria (AFP) – Syrian security forces fired on anti-regime protesters near a mosque on Wednesday, killing five and wounding scores, rights activists said as the government blamed a “gang” for the violence.
Hundreds of people had gathered at the Omari mosque, the focus of rallies in the flashpoint southern town of Daraa since Friday, to prevent police from storming it. Security had been beefed up after they set up tents to camp there.
“Security forces fired live bullets and teargas on protesters” staging a sit-in near the mosque, a rights activist said, adding “They cut off electricity and the firing started.”
The official SANA news agency said the attack by an “armed gang” also killed a security force member.
“An armed gang after midnight attacked a medical team in an ambulance at the Omari mosque, killing a doctor, a paramedic and the driver,” SANA reported.
“The security forces who were near the area intervened, hitting some and arresting others,” it added, without elaborating.
Syria, which is still under a 1963 emergency law banning demonstrations, has witnessed a string of small but unprecedented protests demanding the end of the ruling Assad regime for one week now.
Daraa, a town about 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of Damascus and home to large tribal families, has been the focal point of the rallies, the latest in a string of uprisings against long-running autocratic regimes in the Arab world.
An AFP photographer and videographer in Daraa said their car was stopped in the old town and their equipment confiscated.
After being taken in for questioning, they received an apology from the authorities, but had still not received their equipment back.
The photographer said soldiers were manning checkpoints at all entries to the town and were cross-checking the identity cards of travellers with a list of names they had compiled.
The demonstrations also spilled into the nearby towns of Jassem and Noa, where eyewitnesses said more than 2,000 protesters gathered for a rally before being quickly dispersed by security forces.
Six people had been killed earlier in a security crackdown on the Daraa demonstrations, including an 11-year-old boy who died Monday after inhaling tear gas the day before.
Syrian authorities on Tuesday also detained writer Louai Hussein, one day after he posted a petition online demanding the right to freedom of expression, a London-based rights group reported.
“Syrian security forces broke into the home of Louai Hussein on the outskirts of Damascus on Tuesday… and his whereabouts remain unknown,” said a statement by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“He had posted a petition online the day before to demand the right to peaceful protests and freedom of expression,” the statement added.
Hussein, 51, is a former political prisoner who was jailed from 1984 to 1991 over his activism with the communist party in Syria, the group said.
Organisations including Human Rights Watch have accused the Syrian authorities of detaining dozens of activists at a rally outside the interior ministry last week.
The crackdown on protesters also earned a harsh rebuke on Tuesday from the European Union, which condemned the authorities’ handling of the rallies as “unacceptable.”
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement that the 27-nation bloc “strongly condemns the violent repression, including through the use of live ammunition, of peaceful protests in various locations across Syria.”
The crackdown has resulted in the deaths of several demonstrators, wounded persons and arbitrary detentions “which is unacceptable”, the statement said.
It also called for a Syrian interior ministry investigative committee to ensure those responsible for the death and injury of peaceful protesters in Daraa to be held accountable.