Syria protests: Homs city sit-in 'dispersed by gunfire'

Witness to Syria protests: "The shooting is hammering down on us like rain"

Syrian security forces opened fire to disperse a mass anti-government protest in the country's third-largest city of Homs, witnesses have said.

Hours after the interior ministry warned it would not tolerate an "armed insurrection", security forces swarmed into a main square in Homs before dawn.

One protester told the BBC he had seen someone shot dead.

Meanwhile, the country's decades-old emergency law has been lifted - a key demand of protesters.

Activists say about 200 Syrians have died in weeks of unrest challenging the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

Analysis

It was only a few days ago that Homs began to appear in media coverage of the ongoing protests in Syria, although it wasn't far behind Deraa to join the current wave of protests against President Assad's regime.

The city of Homs lies in central Syria, approximately 180km (111 miles) north of Damascus. It is the main city in the province of Homs, the largest in Syria and the third most populous, with more than a million residents.

As in Deraa, the governor of Homs is very close to President Assad, and this has played a major role in fuelling protests in both cities.

The latest protests took place mainly in the city of Homs and also in the nearby cities of al-Rastan and Talbeesa.

In the beginning, the protesters had a number of specific demands, but the deadly reaction of the authorities fuelled their anger. Those taking part in the second wave of protests are calling for the fall of the regime.

On Saturday, Mr Assad promised an imminent end to the state of emergency, which has been in place for 48 years. The authorities have also been freeing political prisoners - another key demand of the protesters.

But Syria's unprecedented wave of unrest shows no sign of abating.

At least 5,000 demonstrators occupied Clock Square in Homs on Monday after mass funerals for about 12 protesters slain by security forces at the weekend.

Activists stocked up on supplies and set up checkpoints around the square to ensure people coming in were unarmed civilians.

One demonstrator said it had been renamed Tahrir Square, after the one in Cairo which was the focal point of the uprising that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Witnesses said security forces told them through loudhailers to leave, before firing tear gas, then live ammunition in the early hours of Tuesday.

'Heavy gunfire'

A protester called Omar told BBC Arabic on Tuesday that he had seen one person shot dead.

"Listen to the shooting," he said. "Can you hear it? It's hammering on us like rain.

"Security forces... listen to the shooting, where is it coming from? It can't be coming from thugs, it's so heavy."

A demonstrator in Homs told the Associated Press news agency by telephone: "I saw people on the ground, some shot in their feet, some in the stomach."

Another activist, in the capital Damascus, told the AFP news agency by telephone: "The sit-in was dispersed with force. There was heavy gunfire."

Map

The crackdown came hours after the interior ministry warned that unrest in Homs and in the northern city of Baniyas amounted to an "armed insurrection" by Salafist groups.

It said in a statement late on Monday that "terrorist activities will not be tolerated".

Salafism is a strict form of Sunni Islam which many Arab governments equate with militant groups like al-Qaeda.

Correspondents say the authorities will claim to be fighting terrorists while clamping down on dissent.

Syrian state TV said on Tuesday that the interior ministry asked all citizens to "refrain from taking part in marches or demonstrations or sit-ins under any pretext".

The official Sana news agency has also been reporting on events in Homs.

It said three army officers, including a brigadier general, together with his two sons and a nephew, were killed on Sunday by "armed criminal gangs" which then mutilated the bodies.

Demonstrations against Mr Assad's ruling Baath Party spread after breaking out in the southern city of Deraa in mid-March.

The unrest poses the gravest threat to his rule since he succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad 11 years ago.

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