Syria unrest: Troops 'kill 10 protesters in Deraa'

Anti-government protesters in Deraa (23 March 2011) There were protests after the funerals of those killed in an overnight raid

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At least 10 people have been killed and dozens wounded after Syrian police opened fire on people protesting against the deaths of anti-government demonstrators in Deraa, witnesses say.

Hundreds of youths from nearby villages were shot at when they tried to march into the centre of the southern city.

A Syrian human rights activist told the BBC that at least 37 had died.

Troops also reportedly shot at people attending the funerals of six people killed in a raid on a mosque overnight.

Before the violence on Wednesday afternoon, at least 12 people had been killed in clashes with the security forces in the southern city.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for a "transparent investigation" and for those responsible to be held accountable.

The US state department has said it is "deeply concerned by the Syrian government's use of violence, intimidation and arbitrary arrests to hinder the ability of its people to freely exercise their universal rights".

'Massacre'

The latest violence in Deraa on began early on Wednesday.

At the scene

Journalists were not allowed access to the area near al-Omari mosque - the main gathering place in central Deraa.

The rest of the city appeared to be deserted, except for a heavy security presence.

As we were leaving, we saw a long convoy of army vehicles and soldiers heading towards the city.

A crowd of government supporters was also going towards Deraa, shouting pro-regime slogans. There were hundreds of them in cars and on motorcycles.

Witnesses said security forces opened fire on protesters in the late afternoon. There were reports of casualties, which have been difficult to verify.

Hundreds of people had gathered in the streets around the Omari mosque - a focal point for anti-government protests since Friday - to prevent security forces personnel deployed in the old quarter from storming it.

Witnesses said that shortly after midnight, the local power supply was cut and police began to fire live ammunition and tear gas at the protesters.

One human rights activist told BBC Arabic that there was a "massacre" of "innocent, defenceless and peaceful citizens, who are staging peaceful sit-ins, and who don't even have stones to defend themselves with".

Syrian state TV said an armed gang was operating from the mosque and showed what it said were weapons and ammunition stored there. It also alleged that the gang had "kidnapped children and used them as human shields".

It said security forces had killed four members of the gang.

Later, witnesses told the Associated Press that the body of a 12-year-old girl had been found, that a man was shot dead at a funeral of one of those killed outside the mosque, and that four bodies were seen near the offices of a security agency. The reports could not be confirmed.

Start Quote

You didn't know where the bullets were coming from. No one could carry away any of the fallen”

End Quote Deraa witness
Snipers

Then in the afternoon, hundreds of young people from the nearby villages of Inkhil, Jasim, Khirbet Ghazaleh and al-Harrah, gathered on the northern outskirts of Deraa and tried to march towards the city centre.

A witness told the BBC that at least 10 people were killed when police intercepted the crowd and opened fire, while a human rights activist sent the BBC a list of the names of 37 people who had died. The BBC could not verify the figures.

Another witness told the Reuters news agency that dozens of bodies had reportedly been taken to the Tafas hospital outside the city.

"You didn't know where the bullets were coming from. No one could carry away any of the fallen," one person said.

A video posted on YouTube purportedly from Deraa showed people taking cover in a street amid the sound of heavy gunfire, carrying several badly wounded and dead men.

An injured man arrives at a hospital in Deraa (23 March 2011) Wounded arrived at the city's hospitals after the clashes on Wednesday afternoon

Nadim Houry, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told the BBC: "We've received conflicting information on the number of dead and wounded."

"But YouTube videos surfaced later on Wednesday, which showed at least four bodies lying on the street and other protesters struggling to pull these bodies off the street.

"We've showed that footage to people from Deraa who are currently in Damascus and they said it was definitely Deraa. They recognised the street, and we're not aware of any other casualties that happened on that street other than today."

In the evening, parents were seen crying in the streets and loudspeakers from mosques around the city called on those whose relatives had died to go to clinics to collect the bodies, according to Reuters.

There were also snipers deployed on rooftops.

The BBC's Lina Sinjab says she saw about 20 military lorries full of armed soldiers heading towards Deraa on the road from Damascus.

The BBC's Lina Sinjab is one of the few journalists to reach Deraa

The pro-government al-Watan newspaper reported that two security forces personnel were killed in the clashes, and that weapons were being smuggled into Deraa from Jordan, whose border is not far to the south.

It also accused BBC Arabic of broadcasting "provocative news".

Meanwhile, reports say the authorities have released six women protesters arrested last Wednesday after a peaceful protest outside the interior ministry in Damascus calling for the release of political prisoners.

Although the demonstrators have not demanded the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, the unrest is the most serious challenge to his rule since he succeeded his father 11 years ago.

Our correspondent says the events are unprecedented in recent Syrian history, and the unrest is certainly making the government very worried.

Syria has been ruled under emergency laws since 1963.

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