Thousands of Syrians angrily took to the streets chanting anti-government slogans in the southern town of Daraa on Thursday for the funerals of fifteen civilians believed to have been killed by police, Voice of America News reports. The killings occurred as the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad continued its bloody bid to quell political dissent in the Sunni-majority, Alawite-dominated nation on Wednesday.
The deadliest day in Daraa's week-long unrest began at 2 A.M. when hundreds of government security personnel raided the Omari mosque near the center of the city, that dates back to the Roman era. Witnesses said anti-government demonstrators had sought refuge in the neighborhood and converted the mosque into a makeshift clinic to tend to those wounded in previous clashes. Most of those slain in the raid were protesters, the witnesses said.
Syria's state-run media service, SANA, issued a contrary report saying they had raided the neighborhood only after a doctor, nurse, driver, and their security guard were killed by an 'armed gang' of protesters. The government also accused anti-government demonstrators of using the mosque as a weapons depot. SANA released film of money and munitions government claims were cached by demonstrators in the mosque, on Wednesday. Syria's government now denies having entered the mosque.
SANA also broadcast interviews with local officials, who blamed the unrest on terrorists manipulated by Israel and its intelligence service Mossad.
Wednesday's crackdown did not deter supporters of the protest from the villages of Inkhil, Jasim, Khirbat al Ghazalah and Harrah from attempting to join demonstrators in Daraa, but security forces used live ammunition to stop them. By nightfall, Daraa was sealed by government forces who denied both entry and exit. Funerals for the dead were banned, and cellphone service was cut, according to Ammar Qurabi, chief of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria.
A second human rights activist in Daraa sobbed as he told the LA Times, "There are hundreds of wounded and injured in the streets." He spoke on condition of anonymity because of safety concerns.
Some mourners in Daraa called for freedom and shouted "the blood of martyrs is not spilled in vain" as they marched to a cemetery despite the ban on funerals, to bury some those killed on Wednesday.
Protesters in Syria are demanding President Bashar al-Assad end emergency law, curb Syria's pervasive security apparatus, free political prisoners and allow freedom of expression. Syria has been under emergency law since the Baath Party took power in a 1963, banning any opposition to its rule.
Like other Middle Eastern countries embroiled in unrest in recent weeks, Syria suffers from high-level corruption and cronyism and has security forces with unlimited powers to detain dissidents. Demands by anti-government demonstrators have swelled to include an end to the secret police organization, which is headed in Daraa by President Bashar al-Assad's cousin.
Despite being faced with the most serious challenge to his 11-year reign, Syria's president told the Wall Street Journal a domino effect with unrest spreading from Egypt and Tunisia to Syria was unlikely because his country is different.
"We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries but in spite of that Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people's beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance," he explained.
Map: Wikimedia Commons