Syrian forces, Daraa protesters exchange gunfire
DARAA, Syria - Human rights activists said at least 15 people were killed Wednesday in the volatile Syrian city of Daraa, the focal point of a week of anti-regime protests.
Activists and residents said security forces opened fire on protesters outside the Omari mosque early Wednesday, after hundreds of people had gathered overnight to prevent police from storming it, and that shooting had continued sporadically over the course of the day.
One activist said "at least nine people were killed in the attack on the mosque, including a child, a woman and two members of the security forces," and that six more were killed in attacks on a funeral procession later in the day.
"At least thirteen were killed in the overnight attack on the mosque, and we estimate five or six were shot dead during the funeral procession," said another activist.
Earlier, a reporter saw two bodies being brought into the city hospital shortly after gunfire broke out in the afternoon around the mosque, where activists have been holed up for a week.
An 11-year-old girl was also killed by a stray bullet when security forces allegedly opened fire on a funeral procession Wednesday for two of those killed overnight, the activist said.
The government of President Bashar al-Assad has promised to probe the Daraa killings, but analysts warn that the situation is turning increasingly volatile.
But state-run television reported that Assad had fired Daraa Governor Faysal Ahmad Khaltoum, days after young protesters burned down the local courthouse.
Daraa, a tribal city near the Jordanian border, has witnessed daily protests for the past week against the regime of Assad, whose Baath party has ruled Syria uncontested for 40 years.
Syria, a country infamous for its iron grip on security that is still under a 1963 emergency law banning demonstrations, is the latest state in the Middle East to witness an uprising against a long-running autocratic regime.
The official SANA news agency gave a different version of the overnight attack, saying it was carried out by an "armed gang" and left four people dead including 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," before police intervened and made some arrests, said the report.
There was no way to verify the reports, but a correspondent saw a damaged ambulance on a main street of Daraa amid massive security Wednesday.
"It looks like they are going to clean the streets (of the activists) today," said a witness, in his 40's, who looked visibly shaken after a round of gunfire Wednesday afternoon.
The protesters have not yet clearly been identified, and authorities in Daraa accuse them of being Salafists, an austere branch of Sunni Islam which seeks to restore rules common in the early days of the faith.
State television showed footage of what it said was a stockpile of weapons inside the mosque including guns, grenades and ammunition.
While life in the capital Damascus remained unaffected Wednesday, Daraa's streets were tense and empty.
Most shops remained closed as anti-terrorism squads patrolled the 250,000-strong city.
All entries to Daraa had been sealed off by a military checkpoint, and vehicles granted access to the town had to pass through two separate intelligence checkpoints manned by armed plain-clothes forces.
There was also no mobile phone network coverage in the city on Wednesday.
France has called on Syria to stop using excessive force and condemned the action that lead to the deaths, urging Assad to begin genuine reforms.
Syria has accused foreign parties of stirring up the unrest.
SANA news agency has reported "more than one million text messages had been sent to Syrians (encouraging them to) use mosques as a base to cause trouble."
A photographer and videographer in Daraa Wednesday said their equipment had been confiscated, two days after their cameras had also been confiscated on assignment.
The demonstrations have spilled into the nearby towns of Jassem and Noa, where eyewitnesses said more than 2,000 protesters gathered Tuesday 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 have also detained a number of activists and writers demanding major changes including the right to freedom of expression.
Several women who had been detained last week during a rally outside the Interior Ministry however were freed on Wednesday, according to rights groups.
The crackdown has earned harsh rebukes from the European Union, France and the United Nations, among others.