Syrian protests escalate at funerals

Tear gas was fired into the crowd, which had gathered for the funerals of two protesters who were shot dead by security units on Friday, civil-rights campaigners and opposition groups said.

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Damascus // Protests in Syria escalated yesterday when demonstrators openly calling for a "revolution" in the southern city of Deraa clashed with security forces.

Tear gas was fired into the crowd, which had gathered for the funerals of two protesters who were shot dead by security units on Friday, civil-rights campaigners and opposition groups said.

As many as 10,000 people were estimated to have turned out for yesterday's funeral procession, defying a heavy security presence that had been reinforced since the killings.

Some of the demonstrators chanted "revolution, revolution" as they followed the coffins of Wissam Ayyash and Mahmoud al Jawabra through the town. Two other protesters died from gunshot wounds inflicted on Friday, bringing the total number of dead to four.

Reuters, one of the few independent news agencies at the scene, quoted mourners shouting "God, Syria, Freedom. Whoever kills his own people is a traitor". Dozens of protesters were arrested, opposition groups said.

By the afternoon, Deraa had reportedly been sealed off by police as helicopters patrolled overhead, with people allowed to leave but no one from the surrounding tribal region allowed into the city.

In contrast to Friday's smaller protest, however, security forces did not use live ammunition on the crowd yesterday, relying instead on tear gas and batons.

The authorities in Damascus also announced an investigation into Friday's killings, with unconfirmed reports that senior security officials from Deraa had been ordered back to the capital as part of the inquiry.

SANA, the official news agency, cited a ministry of interior source as saying a committee would investigate the use of lethal force. It said "the necessary measures will be taken" and any member of the security forces found to have committed abuse would be "held to account".

That measure was welcomed by human-rights monitors in Syria. "It is an important and essential step to have taken. There needs to be a quick and serious investigation into this incident, otherwise I fear the situation could deteriorate," said Abdul Karim Rehawe, head of the Syrian Human Rights League.

Until a week ago Syria had been quiet, an apparent oasis of calm in a region gripped by popular revolts. But a series of small-scale, isolated protests, some involving fewer than a dozen people and lasting only a matter of minutes, appears to have snowballed.

On Wednesday, more than 100 people staged a rare demonstration outside the interior ministry in central Damascus, demanding the release of political prisoners. Met by baton-wielding police, more than 30 were arrested and on Thursday were charged with defaming the state, a crime under emergency laws that carries a lengthy prison term.

The following day, protests erupted in Damascus, Homs, Banias and Deraa, with the security forces in each place responding differently.

In Banias there was no violence as protesters read out a list of demands, including calls for an end of corruption, a reduction in the price of electricity and the reinstating of school teachers sacked for wearing a full Islamic veil.

In Damascus, suspected protesters were arrested after calls for "freedom" were made following prayers at the historic Umayyad mosque, but without use of lethal violence.

In Deraa, however, security units quickly shifted from using water cannons to firing live ammunition, according to witnesses. Notably, it is the same city that yesterday saw a large-scale follow-up protest, while the others remained quiet.

The Syrian authorities, including the official media, have portrayed the protesters as rioters acting on the instigation of foreign powers, with the security forces responding only in self-defence. State television implied that the US, a longtime foe of the Syrian government, was behind the protests.

The speed with which protests met with deadly force has unnerved civil-rights activists who were hoping to usher in peaceful reforms through public demonstrations.

"I'm afraid, it's shocking to have unarmed demonstrators shot," said one campaigner, an advocate of non-violent action, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of his remarks.

"It's a dangerous time, it's hard to step back once people have been killed - things quickly pass the point of no return," he said.

"You can't imagine how angry people are [about the shooting]. If there is no effort to remedy this [by the authorities], it will be a disaster."

Another Syrian supporting the protesters said the country was approaching a crossroads.

"There are two paths open to us, one is to be like Egypt, with peaceful change, the other is to go the way of Libya where it has been too violent," he said. "I hope for the first, but I'm worried that the wrong path may already have been chosen."