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Syrians Protest in Capital Following Reports of Mass Grave

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Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad
Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad. Photographer: Pankaj Nangia/Bloomberg

May 17 (Bloomberg) -- Syrian protesters kept up demonstrations, gathering in the suburbs of the capital and the central city of Homs, following reports of the discovery of a mass grave containing the bodies of anti-government activists.

The Ministry of Interior in Damascus denied accounts of the burial ground in the southern city of Daraa, saying the allegation was part of a “campaign of provocation and baseless falsehoods,” state television reported today.

Protesters gathered late yesterday in the Damascus suburbs of Saqba, Harasta and Darayya, while women staged a nighttime rally in Homs, Mahmoud Merhi of the Arab Organization for Human Rights said in a phone interview today from the capital. Security forces backed by tanks continued to besiege the town of Tallkalakh near the border with Lebanon, he said.

Syrian authorities have killed at least 850 people during two months of protests, according to Merhi and Ammar Qurabi, head of Syria’s National Organization for Human Rights. The suppression of pro-democracy protests followed revolts that ousted longtime leaders in Egypt and Tunisia. The uprising drew initial pledges of reform from President Bashar al-Assad, who lifted an emergency law in place since 1963 and named a new government. He hasn’t repeated the assurances in recent weeks as security forces stepped up their assaults.

International Sanctions

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton met in Washington and indicated that they will take further initiatives against the Syrian regime in the coming hours or days.

The EU has imposed sanctions including a visa ban and an asset freeze on 13 Syrian officials and relatives of Assad. The U.S. also has applied sanctions against Syrian officials.

“Today we discussed additional steps that we can take to increase pressure and further isolate the Assad regime,” Clinton said in Washington.

Qurabi said the bodies of 31 people killed by security forces were buried in the mass grave found by villagers near Daraa, where anti-government protests began in mid-March. The remains of another 41 people who were targeted by authorities during the past week were also discovered yesterday in Jassem and Inkhel, he said by phone today. The villages are part of the Daraa governorate. Authorities have said they were chasing Muslim militants and “terrorist elements” in the area.

Video Provided

Qurabi provided Bloomberg News with a video purported to be of the grave that has also been posted on the YouTube website. It wasn’t possible to confirm the authenticity of the video immediately. It showed bodies being dug out of the ground and put into plastic bags.

Most foreign journalists have been banned from Syria and the government has restricted media access.

Syria has asked the Lebanese government to hand over four Syrian soldiers who refused to fire on residents of Tallkalakh and fled with hundreds of civilians across the border into Lebanon, Al-Arabiya reported today. One of the soldiers died of his wounds, the news channel said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Massoud A. Derhally in Beirut, Lebanon, at mderhally@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

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