DAMASCUS (AFP) – Funerals were held on Sunday for victims of a fierce Syrian government crackdown on anti-regime protests that killed about 50 people in two days, five of them in a funeral procession, activists said.
In the city of Homs, an epicentre in central Syria of the nine-week uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, hundreds of protesters took to the streets, chanting “down with the regime,” an activist said.
A big demonstration was also reported in Saqba, a suburb of Damascus, where an estimated 10,000 people turned out for the burial of a 25-year-old killed on Saturday.
Those killed on Saturday included at least five gunned down in Homs as they marched in the funeral procession of several of 44 people killed by security forces during protests the previous day on the Muslim day of weekly prayers.
Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organisation for Human Rights, said shots were fired during funeral processions in Homs on Sunday but it was unclear if there were any new casualties.
Security services, meanwhile, were pressing on with a campaign of arrests in Homs as well as the western region of Idlib, also roiled by protests, according to Qurabi.
The state news agency SANA said a police officer was shot dead on Saturday by an “armed terrorist gang” in Saqba.
SANA said that 32 police officers had been killed and 547 wounded since the unrest broke out in Syria on March 15. It did not provide a toll for civilian casualties.
At least 900 people have been killed and thousands more arrested since the pro-democracy protests erupted, according to rights groups. Many of those arrested and later released said they had been tortured.
Foreign media are not allowed to travel in the country to report on the unrest, making it difficult to verify information.
Although the capital has so far been largely spared, protests have been held in and around Damascus since Friday, although they were quickly dispersed with the use of tear gas, live ammunition and clubs, activists and residents say.
Should the protests gain a foothold in Damascus and Aleppo, the country’s second major power centre, that would mark a major setback for the regime.
The government, however, continues to downplay the unrest, saying it is the work of gangs backed by foreign agitators and repeatedly saying the crisis is nearing an end.
But activists insist the regime has lost credibility.
“Their ferocious crackdown has failed because the wall of fear has come crumbling down despite the massive arrests and torture,” said an activist reached by telephone.
“And no one is buying their talk of national dialogue anymore because the government is not addressing the crux of the issue,” he added. “The streets are seething with anger because people don’t know where we are headed.
The bloodshed on Friday and Saturday came as the international community ratcheted up the pressure on Assad, with US President Barack Obama bluntly telling him to lead a transition or “get out.”
The Organisation of the Islamic Conference on Sunday also expressed “deep concern” and urged the regime to exercise restraint.
“Continued violence and the use of force will give rise to security chaos and the situation might get out of control, which would expose the security and stability of the country to even greater risks,” the pan-Islamic grouping said.
The OIC said the security services “must show restraint and refrain from targeting innocent civilians”.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II, meanwhile, said Assad still calls the shots in his country and that to turn things around he must reach out and start a national dialogue.
“From my discussions with him and from what I hear, he is in charge… and he is calling the shots” the king said Sunday in an interview with ABC News’ Christiane Amanpour.
“I think Bashar needs to reach out to the people and get people around the table,” he said.
Washington and the European Union, initially hesitant to criticise the regime, have slapped punitive sanctions on Syria, with the United States targeting the president himself as well as top aides.
The minority Alawite-controlled regime, however, has hit back by accusing Washington of meddling in its internal affairs and of incitement.