Syria vows to clamp down on protests

Witnesses reported security forces using live ammunition against mourners taking part in funeral processions in Deraa yesterday, with claims that at least four people were shot by snipers.

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DAMASCUS // Syrian authorities yesterday vowed they will further harden their stance against unprecedented public dissent and anti-government demonstrations as more incidents of live fire were reported, adding to bloodshed that has already left scores of protesters dead and injured.

Witnesses reported security forces using live ammunition against mourners taking part in funeral processions in Deraa yesterday, with claims that at least four people were shot by snipers. Residents of Latakia, the western port city, also reported hearing shooting yesterday.

Amid deepening international condemnation of its use of deadly force against protesters, Syria's veteran foreign minister, Walid Moallem, met with ambassadors in Damascus yesterday to explain government policy.

According to Sana, the state-run news agency, Mr Moallem told foreign officials that the government recognised the legitimacy of popular demands and was working to meet them with a programme that included "economic, political and judicial reform, and combating corruption".

But he said destruction of government property and shootings by unknown "saboteurs" could no longer be tolerated and that the "necessary procedures" would be taken to prevent instability.

Last Friday marked a turning point in what have been intensifying demonstrations, as protests spread further across the country.

It was among the bloodiest days since the outbreak of anti-government protests began four weeks ago, with more than 30 civilians shot dead by security forces, according to human rights activists.

The government said its forces had suffered their first mass casualties in the violence, claiming that 19 unarmed police officers were fatally shot and another 75 wounded in Deraa, a city 100km south of Damascus that has become the epicentre for anti-regime sentiments.

Previously, the highest loss of life claimed by government forces was two security officers killed last Tuesday in a Damascus suburb.

In a statement made late on Friday, Syria's interior ministry apparently revoked an order that live ammunition would not be used by security units - an order that had already been flouted on various occasions - saying there was "no more room for leniency" in the face of public disorder that was being stoked by enemies of the state.

"The Syrian authorities, in order to preserve the security of the country, citizens and the governmental and services establishments, will confront these people and those behind them according to the law, which specifies the conditions for using weapons," the statement said.

It said peaceful protests were "healthy", but stressed it would not allow them to be "deliberately confused" with "vandalism, sowing discord, undermining strong national unity and attacking the basis of Syrian policy".

Most anti-government protests have been peaceful, with unarmed demonstrators calling for "freedom" and not responding violently when confronted by riot police who have used tear gas, live ammunition and batons to break up the rallies.

But a number of official buildings, including courtrooms and offices of the ruling Baath party, have been torched by angry crowds, as have commercial premises associated with members of the ruling elite.

Statues of former president Hafez al Assad have also been destroyed in Deraa, while posters of President Bashar al Assad have been torn and burnt in some areas. The government has blamed agent provocateur gunmen for shooting at both demonstrators and security units,

But the National Organisation of Human Rights in Syria (Nohrs) yesterday issued a statement saying the government had committed crimes against humanity by gunning down unarmed civilians and preventing the wounded from getting hospital treatment.

"What is happening in Syria is a flagrant violation of [human rights]," the Nohrs said. "Syrian security committed [in Deraa] what could be called a crime against humanity … it fired indiscriminately on protesters and killed and wounded tens of them."

Both the government's account of the incident and those of human rights monitors have been impossible to independently verify.

A Syrian political analyst said there was widespread and growing public mistrust of official explanations. "There are more questions than answers about the claim that 19 policemen were killed in Deraa," he said on condition of anonymity. "We've not been told their names, or seen official coverage of the burials, and this kind of incomplete information does not make for a convincing story - even if it is actually true."

In a sign that opposition to the authorities is stiffening, Nasir Hariri, an MP from Deraa, yesterday told the BBC Arabic service that he wanted to see an inquiry into the latest round of violence and an emergency session of parliament to discuss the issue. In Homs, one of Syria's major urban centres, a number of respected clerics, including some on the government payroll, issued a petition asking for draconian emergency laws to be scrapped, political prisoners to be freed, an end to the Baath party's political monopoly and for freedom of expression.

Protesters have made those calls across the country, but Syria's Sunni Muslim clerical establishment has so far largely toed the government line and refrained from making public demands. Last Friday, a number of Sunni majority cities staged large demonstrations in what may be an indication that the community, which makes up a majority of Syria's population, is beginning to mobilise.