Bodies in streets as Syrian troops sweep into Daraa

AFP , Monday 25 Apr 2011

Thousands of Syrian troops backed by tanks enter the flash point town of Daraa, firing indiscriminately as pressure mounts for a stronger international response to the regime's brutal crackdown on protesters

A man throws a rock at a passing tank in a location given as Deraa on April 25, 2011, in this still image from an amateur video. Syrian troops in tanks and armoured vehicles poured into the southern town Deraa and opened fire on Monday, residents said, in the latest bloodshed in a crackdown on protests that has escalated sharply in recent days. REUTERS

Thousands of Syrian troops backed by tanks swept into the flashpoint town of Daraa on Monday, firing on residents and leaving bodies lying in the streets, activists and witnesses said.

Rights activists also reported security force raids Monday in the towns of Douma and Al-Muadamiyah near Damascus.

One witness spoke of five people killed in Daraa when their car was raked by gunfire while activists reached by telephone said they were unable to count the number of dead and wounded as army snipers on rooftops were preventing people from leaving their houses.

"We saw with our own eyes, they were in a car that was riddled with bullets," the witness said, adding that he was on a rooftop and could hear intense gunfire reverberating across the town.

"The minarets of the mosques are appealing for help. The security forces are entering houses. There is a curfew and they fire on those who leave their homes. They even shot at water tanks on roofs to deprive people of water," he said.

A massive crackdown was also underway Monday in Douma, 15 kilometres (nine miles) north of Damascus, a rights activist said, reached by telephone.

"Security forces have surrounded a mosque and are firing indiscriminately. Streets are cut off from each other and Douma is isolated from the outside world," said the activist, adding that there have been sweeping arrests in the town since Sunday.

The military assaults come as Syria is engulfed in anti-regime protests and amid a crackdown on demonstrators across the country in which according to rights activists and witnesses more than 135 people have been killed and scores arrested since Friday.

The crackdown comes despite President Bashar al-Assad signing on Thursday decrees ending a draconian state of emergency, imposed by the Baath Party when it seized power in 1963, to placate more than a month of pro-democracy protests.

He also abolished the state security court that has tried scores of regime opponents outside the normal judicial system and issued a decree allowing citizens to hold peaceful demonstrations.

Rights activists reached by telephone said a 3,000-strong military force swarmed into Daraa in the early hours of Monday, with tanks taking up positions in the town centre and snipers deploying on rooftops.

"Snipers have taken up positions on the roofs and tanks are in the centre of the town... Bodies are lying in the streets and we can't recover them," one activist said, asking not to be named for security reasons.

Activist Abdullah Al-Harriri told AFP earlier on Monday: "The men are firing in all directions and advancing behind the armour which is protecting them.

"Electricity is cut off and telephone communications are virtually impossible," he said.

On Sunday thousands of residents of Daraa province buried several victims of a crackdown by security forces of protesters the previous day.

A demonstration followed, but the security forces did not intervene, a militant said. Asking to remain anonymous, he said the protesters brandished Syrian flags and placards calling for "suppression of Article 8 of the constitution" on supremacy of the sole Baath Party.

Most shops stayed closed in a sign of mourning.

Tens of thousands swarmed cities and towns across Syria on Friday to test implementation of the reforms authorised by Assad a day earlier, but security forces used live rounds and tear gas against them, activists said.

"After Friday’s carnage, it is no longer enough to condemn the violence," Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

"Faced with the Syrian authorities’ 'shoot to kill' strategy, the international community needs to impose sanctions on those ordering the shooting of protesters," he said.

The protests against Assad's regime started mid-March in Daraa and spread to other major centres, including the capital Damascus. A crackdown by the security forces on the protests have left at least 366 people dead, according to figures compiled by AFP based on reports by human rights groups and witnesses.

Syria blames "armed gangs" for the unrest aimed at fuelling sectarian strife among its multi-religious and multi-ethnic communities.

Wissam Tarif, executive director of Insan human rights group, said that at their last update Friday there were 221 "forcefully disappeared people" in Syria.

The Syrian Revolution 2011 group, a driving force behind the protests, indicated it would keep up the pressure. "We are going out (on the streets) today, tomorrow and the day after," said a statement on its Facebook page.

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