'Mass grave' found in Daraa, Syrian town at heart of protests against Assad

Residents discover mass grave in the old part of Daraa that was immediately cordoned off by authorities to prevent bodies from being recovered, according to activists.

A burnt-out building in the southern city of Daraa, Syria, where the army last week shelled residential areas and unleashed security forces in an intensified push to crush the uprising against President Bashar al Assad, killing an 8-year-old boy and at least 17 others, a human rights group said.
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DAMASCUS // Syria's brutal crackdown against pro-democracy protests took a chilling turn yesterday with the discovery of a mass grave in Daraa, the town at the heart of protests that have seen the country in turmoil for two months, an activist said.

"The army today allowed residents to venture outside their homes for two hours daily," said Ammar Qurabi of the National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria.

"They discovered a mass grave in the old part of town but authorities immediately cordoned off the area to prevent residents from recovering the bodies, some of which they promised would be handed over later," he said on the phone from Cairo.

Mr Qurabi said the Syrian regime must bear full responsibility for the crimes committed against "unarmed" citizens and urged the international community and civil society to pressure it to stop the "brutal repression" of its people.

He was unable say how many people were buried in the alleged mass grave.

His account could not be independently verified as Syrian authorities have all but sealed off the country to foreign journalists amid a brutal crackdown against unprecedented protests threatening the regime of President Bashar al Assad.

Mr Qurabi said that 34 people had also been killed in the past five days in the towns of Jassem and Inkhil, near Daraa.

"I fear that dozens more casualties may be lying in nearby wheat fields and orchards because families have not been able to access the region which is encircled by security troops and snipers," he said.

The unrest in Syria first erupted in Damascus on March 15 but was promptly put down and soon spread to Daraa and across the country with protesters emboldened by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

More than 850 people, including women and children, have been killed and at least 8,000 arrested as security forces crack down on the protest movements, according to rights groups.

The bloodshed spilled into neighbouring Lebanon at the weekend when a Syrian woman, among dozens fleeing the north-western town of Tall Kalakh, was killed and six other people wounded, a Lebanese security official said.

Witnesses contacted by telephone also reported 10 people were killed on Sunday in Tall Kalakh, located near the Lebanese border, as security forces deployed inside the town.

Shelling and shooting was also reported in the nearby town of Arida, an activist said.

Meanwhile hundreds of protesters and rights advocates detained in recent days were released on Sunday after signing pledges not to take part in further protests, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"Several of them said they had been tortured," he said, adding that thousands of people remained jailed and more arrests were taking place.

The regime has blamed the deadly violence on "armed terrorist gangs" backed by Islamists and foreign agitators.

Dozens of Syrians who fled the violence in their home towns gathered in north Lebanon yesterday to demand the fall of Mr al Assad's regime.

"The people want the fall of the regime," chanted the group gathered in the village of Al Boqayah, located along the border.

Most of the protesters hailed from the Syrian towns of Tall Kalakh and Arida.

"We don't love you, Bashar," and "Tall Kalakh, have no fear, we are with you," they shouted.

The United Sates and European Union have responded to the unrest in Syria by imposing sanctions on members of Mr al Assad's inner circle but stopped short of targeting him personally.

Rights groups have called for harsher sanctions but there are fears that should Mr al Assad's regime fall, that would have serious ramifications for the region and could lead to civil war.

Human Rights Watch at the weekend accused the regime of pushing forth with its campaign to crush the pro-democracy protests by rounding up activists and holding many of them incommunicado while going after their families.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of the New York-based organisation, said in a statement released on Sunday: "Syria's leaders talk about a war against terrorists, but what we see on the ground is a war against ordinary Syrians - lawyers, human rights activists, and university students - who are calling for democratic changes in their country.

"Syria's emergency law may have been lifted on paper, but repression is still the rule on Syria's streets.

"Behind the empty rhetoric of promises and national dialogue, there is a systematic campaign to rebuild Syria's wall of fear with only one purpose: allowing al Assad and his cronies to maintain their absolute grip on power," she said.