Syria violence: New protests after crackdown in Hama

The BBC's Jim Muir reports on Syrian state TV showing images of deserted streets with makeshift barricades

Tens of thousands of people have protested across Syria, days after the bloody crackdown on the city of Hama where the opposition had taken control.

Video said to be of Damascus showed crowds in a central district chanting: "Hama, we are with you until death" and "[President] Bashar [al-Assad] leave".

Security forces shot dead at least 13 protesters on Friday, reports say.

The US, German and French leaders have accused Mr Assad of "indiscriminate" violence against civilians.

The White House said President Barack Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and French President Nicolas Sarkozy had spoken in separate telephone calls, and warned of unspecified new measures against the Syrian leader.

In a broadcast from Hama, Syrian state TV said the city was under government control. Hama residents and human rights groups accuse the army of killing more than 100 civilians in a bombardment of the city, which has become a focus of the protests against Mr Assad's rule.

As many as 2,000 people may have been killed by security forces since opponents of President Assad's autocratic rule took to the streets in March.

Protesters were inspired by the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Mr Assad has promised reforms, but blames the violence on "armed criminal gangs" backed by unspecified foreign powers.

Access to events in Syria has been severely restricted for international journalists and it is rarely possible to verify accounts by witnesses and opposition activists.

Marching in the heat

Activists had called for more protests after prayers on Friday, with one web user posting a message saying: "God is with us, are you?"

BBC map

Video posted by activists purports to show protesters marching through the Midan district of the Syrian capital, close to the Old City.

Clapping their hands, they chanted: "We don't want you Bashar."

In another district of the capital, Qadam, protesters carried a banner reading: "Bashar is slaughtering the people and the international community is silent."

Security forces opened fire with live ammunition and tear gas in several cities, activists said.

At least 10 people were killed in the Damascus suburbs of Irbin, Moaddamia and Dumeir, and three in the city of Homs.

Abdel Karim Rihawi, head of the Syrian League for the Defence of Human Rights, told AFP news agency that 30,000 people had marched in the city of Deir al-Zour despite extreme heat.

Numbers were down on previous Fridays, when hundreds of thousands turned out for protests. Correspondents say this is probably because it was the first Friday in the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn until dusk and go outside less.

Earlier, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused security forces of killing some 2,000 people since March.

'New shelling'

Analysis

In the Syrian state TV footage, the streets of Homs - a city of 700,000 people - appeared deserted and strewn with rubble in the footage, as tanks pushed aside boulders used by activists to block the roads.

Government buildings were left burnt out and blackened after being set on fire by protesters. The official TV reports also repeated footage from last Sunday purportedly showing armed men among the milling protesters.

Activists admitted that some young men had seized weapons when they overran and burnt police stations that day.

The footage suggested that troops and tanks were now firmly in control of Hama after storming the city centre on Wednesday.

But residents said shooting and shelling were still going on in some areas - and the TV correspondent wore body armour while standing in front of Hama's famous ancient water wheels on the Assi river in the centre of town.

Residents of Hama, which has become a focal point of protests, told reporters that there had been more gunfire and shelling early on Friday.

Snipers and tanks have been firing on civilians and food and medicine supplies are running low, witnesses say.

But the Syrian TV report showed pictures of armed men hiding behind cars and claimed the army had quelled a rebellion.

The report showed deserted streets with flimsy barricades and piles of rubble. Later, the reporter went into buildings that appeared to have been destroyed in an explosion.

The UN Security Council issued a statement this week condemning the crackdown.

Russia, traditionally an ally of Syria, also joined the criticism, with President Dmitry Medvedev saying Mr Assad would "face a sad fate" unless he urgently carried out reforms and reconciled with the opposition.

The BBC's Jim Muir in neighbouring Lebanon says Mr Medvedev's statement may give the government pause for thought, but there has been no change in the attitude on the ground.

Syria's anti-government protests, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, first erupted in mid-March after the arrest of a group of teenagers who spray-painted a revolutionary slogan on a wall. The protests soon spread, and the UN says 3,500 people have died in the turmoil - mainly protestors but also members of Syria's security forces - while thousands more have been injured.
Although the arrest of the teenagers in the southern city of Deraa first prompted people to take to the streets, unrest has since spread to other areas, including Hama, Homs, Latakia, Jisr al-Shughour and Baniyas. Demonstrators are demanding greater freedom, an end to corruption, and, increasingly, the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad.
The government has responded to the protests with overwhelming military force, sending tanks and troops into towns and cities. Amateur video footage shows tanks and snipers firing on unarmed protesters. There may have been an armed element to the uprising from its early days and army deserters have formed the Free Syrian Army.
Some of the bloodiest events have taken place in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. In early June, officials claimed 120 security personnel were killed by armed gangs, however protesters said the dead were shot by troops for refusing to kill demonstrators. As the military moved to take control of the town, thousands fled to neighbouring Turkey, taking refuge in camps.
Although the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo have seen pockets of unrest and some protests, it has not been widespread - due partly to a heavy security presence. There have been rallies in the capital - one with an enormous Syrian flag - in support of President Assad, who still receives the backing of many in Syria's middle class, business elite and minority groups.
The Assad family has been in power for 40 years, with Bashar al-Assad inheriting office in 2000. The president has opened up the economy, but has continued to jail critics and control the media. He is from the minority Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shia Islam - but the country's 20 million people are mainly Sunni. The biggest protests have been in Sunni-majority areas.
The uprising has cost 3,500 lives, according to the UN and Jordan's King Abdullah says that President Assad should now step down. The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership and voted for sanctions. The EU has frozen the assets of Syrian officials, placed an arms embargo on Syria and banned imports of its oil. But fears remain of Syria collapsing into civil war.
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