Syrian Forces Open Fire on Protesters, Killing Three and Arresting Many

Reporting from Beirut – At least three people were killed and a large number were arrested early Tuesday after Syrian security forces opened fire on peaceful protesters in Homs, the country's third-largest city, said a resident who participated in the demonstration.

Thousands of angry mourners poured into the city Monday in a politically charged funeral procession memorializing at least 20 protesters said to have been shot and killed by security forces loyal to President Bashar Assad a day earlier.

Early Tuesday, after warning protesters to disperse, security forces opened fire, according to witnesses and video posted to the Internet.

Also on Tuesday, there were signs of continuing unrest at university campuses in Damascus and Aleppo, where activists had called for student strikes, and reports of protests gearing up in Latakia and Baniyas. The Interior Ministry has been blaming Islamic extremists for the violence, although activists insist that they represent a broad cross-section of society. The ministry also demanded that Syrians “refrain from any mass rallies or demonstrations or sitting-ins under any title,” in a statement issued Tuesday.

Activists and residents nevertheless gathered Tuesday near the southern entrance to Homs to bury two of the overnight victims, said a witness reached by telephone.

“Officially there are three martyrs,” he said, asking that he be identified only as Abu Haydar, or the father of Haydar, for fear of reprisal. “But security forces arrested a number of wounded, as well. And we don't know how many were arrested.”

Monday's march, described by witnesses and shown in amateur video on the Internet, along with smaller protests reported around the country, were the latest signs that weeks of protests against the Assad government are not likely to abate soon. The government's response, meanwhile, indicated that the president does not intend to back down either.

One witness said security forces completely cut off Homs, closing roads in and out of the city as truckloads of plainclothes pro-government militiamen called shabiha arrived to face off against young men chanting for the overthrow of the regime. The protesters had taken off their shirts to show they were unarmed.

“These shabiha are a criminal gang,” said Mohammed, who did not give his full name for fear of reprisal.

Demonstrations against the Assad government began after the arrest and alleged torture of a group of teen vandals in the southern city of Dara more than a month ago. The peaceful popular movement was inspired by revolutions and uprisings across the Arab world.

Like deposed leaders in Egypt and Tunisia and Moammar Kadafi in Libya, Assad and his deputies have blamed the violence on murky “gangs” of criminals. The official state news agency reported that an unnamed gunman killed an army officer Sunday in Homs.

Widespread anti-government protests erupted across the country Sunday in what were widely seen as a rejection of Assad's promise to replace decades-old emergency laws that stifle civil liberties with counter-terrorism measures that give his security forces similar powers. They followed a massive day of protests after prayers on Friday.

Although Assad has promised some modest reforms, his other actions have made activists and observers doubt his sincerity. The country has launched an unprecedented crackdown on journalists, loading them into cars and locking them up for days without access to their families or attorneys.

The government alleges that the uprising is the work of foreign conspirators. The Washington Post, citing documents obtained by WikiLeaks, reported Monday that the U.S. secretly spent millions on efforts to promote democracy in Syria, including an exile satellite television station based in London.

Special correspondent Meris Lutz in Beirut and a special correspondent in Damascus contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

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