Death toll in Deraa rises after fresh protests

Anti-government demonstrations intensify across Syria with a dangerous escalation in Deraa that leaves as many as 27 protesters dead, according to activists. Syrian authorities claim 19 policemen killed by gunmen.

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DAMASCUS // Anti-government demonstrations intensified across Syria yesterday with a dangerous escalation in Deraa that left as many as 27 protesters dead according to activists, with the Syrian authorities claiming 19 policemen had been killed by gunmen.

Efforts throughout the week by Syria's government to deter public dissent with a flurry of minor political concessions, promises of reforms, and a crackdown on activists, failed to prevent demonstrations yesterday in Damascus, Douma, Deraa, Homs, Hasika, Qamishli and Banias, among other places.

In Deraa, which has become the epicentre for protesters demanding increased freedoms and major political changes, security forces clashed with thousands of residents after midday prayers, according to witnesses.

Rights groups believe up to 27 people were fatally shot, with dozens of civilians wounded, when security units opened fire on crowds using live ammunition and tear gas. Protesters threw stones at riot police and smashed a statue of Bacel al Assad, the brother of president Bashar al Assad, witnesses reported.

As has become customary since anti-government demonstrations began in Syria just over four weeks ago, the authorities offered a different explanation of the confrontation, and a greatly reduced death toll.

Sana, the state-run news agency, said 19 members of the security forces were killed when masked gunmen opened fire, with "scores of citizens, security forces and policemen" wounded by the shooters. The government insists police have been ordered not to use live ammunition against peaceful protesters.

To support the official version of events, Syrian national television showed footage of men with their heads wrapped in headscarves shooting automatic rifles from behind walls and trees.

More than 55 civilians have been shot and killed by security forces in Deraa since the first protest there four Fridays ago, civil rights activists say. As many as 140 people have been killed nationwide since then, according to human rights monitors, although the government says the real number is closer to 30.

President Assad has ordered a commission to investigate the killings both in Deraa and the city of Latakia. The panel is expected to complete its work soon but it is unknown if the latest fatalities will be part of that probe.

Residents in both cities accuse security forces or their proxies of deliberately using deadly force against civilians to stamp out criticism of Syria's autocratic rulers.

The government has said foreign conspirators and armed gangs are

behind the violence.

In the run-up to yesterday, a series of announcements were made to try to tamp down protests in Deraa, including the appointment of a new governor and the creation of the investigations committee. Those steps have been dismissed as insufficient by residents, some of whom are now calling for for regime change.

Elsewhere in Syria, protesters continued to demand the release of thousands of political prisoners and for an end to draconian emergency laws that have long been used to suppress opposition to the ruling Baath party.

Demonstrations also expanded yesterday in areas with Kurdish

majority populations. Until last week, Syria's powerful and

politically well-organised Kurdish minority had not joined in protests. On Thursday, the government scrambled to keep it that way, offering some 100,000 stateless Kurds citizenship - a basic civil right they have been refused for decades.

That measure did nothing to stop more than 3,000 Kurds in

Qamishli, Hasika and Amuda from taking to the streets, however, with Kurdish political leaders saying nothing short of democracy is now acceptable. Activists said joint Kurdish and Arab protesters chanted slogans in support of those killed in Deraa - now a symbol of defiance against the government. The Kurd and Arab demonstrators also called for greater freedom and urged national unity between Syria's different sects and ethnic groups.

Like Deraa, the Damascus suburb of Douma, 15 kilometres north of the

capital, saw renewed protests yesterday but unlike last Friday when at

least eight demonstrators were shot dead there, security forces

yesterday appeared to

have pulled back and allowed this latest anti-government rally to proceed. Violence in Douma appeared to have spread south to nearby Harasta, an area on the outskirts of the capital, while protests also took place in Homs, 160km north of Damascus.

The Reuters news agency also said some 2,000 people took part in an anti-government demonstration in Hama, which was broken up by security forces using water cannon and smoke grenades. If confirmed, it would be the first rally in Hama since the wave of protests began in Syria.

Hama, a conservative Islamic city, was razed by the Syrian army in 1982, with thousands of residents killed, in response to a campaign of assassination by the Muslim Brotherhood.

While government efforts to bring a complete end to protests failed, its moves to prevent the Sunni majority from taking part in the uprising en masse continued to hold - although the outbreak in Sunni stronghold Hama will surely concern officials.

Last week the authorities made a series of concessions to the

country's government-affiliated Sunni clerics who, in turn, have urged their followers to give the authorities more time to push through promised political reforms.

That has helped to ensure that demonstrations remain comparatively isolated and limited in scale, with major cities such as Damascus and Aleppo remaining quiet in comparison to outlying areas like Deraa.