DAMASCUS (AFP) – Thousands took to Syrian streets on Monday, a day after activists said 11 were killed by security forces amid the clamour for an end to martial law.
Protests gripped the central city of Homs, the protest hub of Daraa in the south as well as in Jisr al-Shoughour near the northwestern city of Idleb despite pledges by the president to lift a draconian emergency law.
Activists have said Bashar al-Assad’s vow on Saturday to lift within a week nearly five decades of emergency law were insufficient, and protests shook Syria again within hours of the presidential speech.
Protesters are also demanding the release of political prisoners and the end of the ruling Baath party’s grip over the state and society as stipulated by the constitution.
Tens of thousands of mourners marched in Homs on Monday a day after security forces fired live rounds to disperse demonstrators in the Bab Sba’a area of town, killing at least seven people, activists said.
At least four others in the nearby town of Talbisseh were also killed on Sunday when security forces opened fired on a funeral procession.
A sea of mourners swamped Homs for the funerals of the seven killed there, and their coffins were held shoulder high above the crowds.
Some were open and others covered with Syrian flags, witnesses said.
Many of them clapping their hands, mourners called for “the fall of the regime” and “freedom” as they paid tribute to the “martyrs,” activists said. About 3,000 people also staged a sit-in the city centre.
Two activists spoke of seven dead in Homs, but a third one said nine had died late Saturday. They all agreed however that some 20 people had been wounded.
Tensions had been running high in Homs since the announcement on Saturday that a Muslim cleric arrested a week earlier had died in custody.
“The security services handed back the body of Sheikh Faraj Abu Mussa a week after he was arrested in perfectly good health as he was leaving the mosque,” an activist said.
More than 50 people were also wounded when the security forces fired on the crowds, witnesses said, adding that the death toll could be higher.
The official news agency SANA reported: “One policeman was killed and 11 others were wounded by fire from an armed criminal group in Talbisseh.”
The report added: “Three armed criminals were killed and 15 others injured, as well as five soldiers.
“The criminals opened fire from buildings close to an army post near the bridge where the army had been sent to apprehend these gangs.”
There were also protests in Daraa, where angry some 500 angry demonstrators, including 150 lawyers, called for the fall of the regime, a right activist at the scene said.
The protesters in Daraa, the beacon of demonstrations for greater freedoms launched in Syria in mid-March, also demanded the release of political prisoners and an end to Baath Party hegemony, said the source.
In Jisr al-Shoughour, 1,500 people protested Monday after the funeral of a demonstrator killed in the northern coastal town of Banias.
They blocked the road to Aleppo and demanded news be provided of everyone who has gone missing, an activist at the scene told AFP.
The ruling party’s Al-Baath newspaper insisted on Monday that reforms announced by Assad “have become an urgent necessity in the light of the painful events which are happening across Syria.”
Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said cancelling “military courts” and revoking a law granting security agents immunity were also necessary.
Prominent Syrian human rights lawyer Haytham Maleh told AFP that scrapping the emergency law “is a step, but it is not enough. It must be accompanied by reform of the judicial system, which is corrupted.”
At least 200 people have been killed by security forces or plain-clothes police since the start of the protest movement, according to Amnesty International.
On the international front, The Washington Post said the US government has been secretly financing Syrian opposition groups, including a satellite TV channel beaming anti-regime programming into the country.
Citing previously undisclosed diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks, it said London-based Barada TV, which began broadcasting in April 2009, has ramped up operations to cover the mass protests in Syria.
Barada TV is closely affiliated with the Movement for Justice and Development, a London-based network of Syrian exiles, the paper said.
Classified US diplomatic cables show that the State Department has funnelled as much as $6 million (4.1 million euros) to the group since 2006, the report said.