Syria Clamps Down on City of Daraa After at Least Seven Killed in Protests

Syrian troops are forcing people to stay at home in the southern city of Daraa after seven people were killed in renewed anti-government protests that have swept across the country, Amnesty International said.

Unidentified human rights activists cited by Agence France- Presse said the unrest in Daraa today left at least 15 people dead and seven wounded.

“People are being asked through loudspeakers to remain at home or they will be shot,” Neil Sammonds, a researcher on Syria for Amnesty, said by telephone from London. Snipers are enforcing the orders and all the city’s entrances are being watched, he said. “The town is besieged.”

The rallies in Syria mark the latest expansion of the political turmoil that has engulfed the region this year. Uprisings have toppled the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt and threatened the rule of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, where United Nations-backed international forces are carrying out air strikes to protect civilian protesters.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fired Faisal Kalthum, the governor of Daraa, state television reported today.

Raids, Arrests

Syrian forces, including plain-clothed intelligence agents, were raiding Daraa neighborhoods to make arrests, Sammonds said. Amnesty estimates that between 100 and several hundred people have been detained, taken to unknown locations and prevented from having access to their families or lawyers, he said. “We are concerned as torture is common practice,” Sammonds said.

Thirteen people have been killed in the protests since March 18, he said.

The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, citing an official, said a doctor, a paramedic and a driver were killed overnight when an armed gang attacked their ambulance, and that a member of the security forces also died when his unit confronted the attackers and arrested some of them. The Associated Press, the BBC and Al Arabiya television said the deaths took place when security forces attacked protesters. The reports couldn’t be independently confirmed.

Syrian state television showed footage of what it said were assault rifles, guns, hand grenades, ammunition and stacks of banknotes inside al-Omari mosque. Sammonds said Amnesty had “no evidence” that protesters were armed in any of the incidents that occurred since protests erupted in Syria.

Weapons Cache

SANA said the security forces will continue to pursue armed gangs, which it said are scaring civilians, committing murders, stealing and burning public and private buildings in Daraa.

“The armed gangs in Daraa have stored weapons and ammunition in al-Omari Mosque, and used children they had kidnapped from their families as human shields,” according to the state agency.

Daraa residents have been demanding the trial of those responsible for the March 18 killings, the release of detainees recently jailed on political charges, the dismissal of some officials and permission to sell land in border territories without government approval.

Sammonds said key demands include the release of a large number of children, with an average age of 10, who have been detained for two weeks for writing graffiti in Daraa saying: “the people want the fall of the regime.”

Assad has sent a representative to Daraa to listen to the demands, SANA reported separately, citing Vice President Faruq Al-Shara. The government will quash any attempt to stir up chaos or target state installations and private properties and vowed to block any foreign interference, Al-Shara was cited as saying by SANA.

Foreign Involvement?

State television accused “foreign parties” that it didn’t identify of spreading lies about the situation in Daraa to incite the people. A Syrian activist who asked not to be named for security reasons said domestic authorities are attempting to contain the protests, making them appear to be local incidents.

Arabiya television aired footage of what it said was a recent funeral in Daraa where the crowds were chanting: “No Iran and no Hezbollah, we want a Muslim who is afraid of Allah!” Syria and its regional ally, Iran, are the main backers of the Lebanese Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, which has been leading guerrilla warfare against Israel.

Assad became Syria’s president in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who had ruled for 29 years. Hafez al-Assad crushed a rebellion led by Islamic-group members in the city of Hama in 1982, killing as many as 10,000 people, according to estimates cited by Human Rights Watch.

To contact the reporters on this story: Lina Ibrahim in Dubai at librahim4@bloomberg.net; Nayla Razzouk in Amman at nrazzouk2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Riad Hamade at rhamade@bloomberg.net

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