Syrian security forces killed at least seven people when they opened fire on protesters who rallied after leaving mosques following prayers on the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, an activist said.
The deaths today raised to two dozen the number of people killed in the past 24 hours, said Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights in Damascus. The deaths today were in Daraa, where unrest in Syria began in mid-March, he said. Mosques have been rallying points for protests against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Since the unrest began, 2,450 civilians and 700 security forces have been killed, Merhi said. About 15,000 people have been injured and at least 20,000 people are now in prison, he said.
A Russian envoy yesterday delivered a message from President Dmitry Medvedev to Assad calling for a halt to the violence. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who also has been a Syrian ally, warned that Assad’s government risks the fate of others toppled in the area if it doesn’t end the killings. U.S. President Barack Obama earlier this month joined European leaders in calling for Assad to leave office.
“The need was stressed for an immediate and complete halt to violence by all parties and the immediate implementation of reforms promised by the Syrian leadership,” the Kremlin said in a statement on its website.
Russia, which has maintained close ties with Syria since the Soviet era, earlier this month rejected demands from the U.S. and European countries for Assad to step down.
Russia maintains its only military facility in the Middle East in Syria, a servicing point for visiting navy vessels in the port of Tartus, which was a permanent base for Soviet warships during the Cold War.
Russia also opposes an initiative by the U.S., Britain and France, to impose United Nations sanctions on Syria.
“The international community is increasingly speaking with one voice in demanding an immediate end to the violence,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday. “We’re going to continue to make the case to the Security Council that it is time now for the council as a whole, rather than the individual nations, to sanction Assad.”
The protests were inspired by unrest across the Middle East and North Africa that unseated Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January and toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak the next month. Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi is in hiding after an uprising ended his control over most of the country.
“Immediately silencing guns and heeding public demands are the only way out.” Erdogan said in a televised speech late on Aug. 28. “We’ve seen the consequences of those who chose not to pick this path in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.”
Today’s shootings came as Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the holiday which marks the end of Islamic fast month of Ramadan. Merhi said many Syrians have abstained from buying traditional holiday sweets in a sign of mourning for protesters who have been killed.
Assad has blamed the dissent on a foreign conspiracy, while saying protesters’ demands “have merit” and that changes are needed.