Syrian army kills four as it takes back city mosque
More than 535 civilians killed by army since March uprising beganANGER: Protesters take part in a demonstration in front of the Syrian embassy in Jordan
Syrian army troops backed by tanks and helicopters yesterday took a prominent mosque that had been controlled by residents in a besieged southern city, killing four people, a witness said.
The operation in the town of Daraa came a day after President Bashar Assad unleashed deadly force to crack down on a months-old revolt, killing at least 65 people, mostly in the border town.
Daraa resident Abdullah Abazeid said the assault on the mosque lasted 90 minutes, during which troops fired tank shells and heavy machine guns. Three helicopters took part in the operation, dropping paratroopers onto the mosque itself, he said.
The Omari mosque, in the city's Roman-era old town, had been occupied by residents of Daraa.
Daraa is the heart of a six-week-old uprising and has been under siege since last Monday, when the government first sent in tanks to crush the demonstrations.
Among the dead was Osama Ahmad, the son of the mosque's imam, Sheik Ahmad Sayasna, according to Mr Abazeid. The other three were a woman and her two daughters who were killed when a tank shell hit their home near the mosque, he said.
In another development in the Daraa region, 138 members of Mr Assad's ruling Baath Party resigned yesterday in protest at the crackdown. Lists of those who resigned, with their party rank, identity card numbers and signatures, were released by activists.
It was not possible to independently verify the authenticity of the lists of the low-ranking members. Earlier this week, another 200 mostly low-level Baath party members in the Daraa province resigned over the deadly crackdown.
In the early hours of the morning, military reinforcements poured into Daraa, including 20 armoured personnel carriers, four tanks, and a military ambulance, a resident of the city said.
The head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said 65 people were killed on Friday, with 36 of the deaths in the Daraa province, 27 in the central Homs region, one in Latakia and another in the Damascus countryside.
In all, 535 civilians have been killed since the uprising began in mid-March, he said.
An activist said authorities have asked families of some of those killed on Friday to hold small funerals attended by family members only. Similar orders were given last week, but most people did not abide by them, the activist added.
The move appeared to be an attempt by authorities to avoid more bloodshed, with funerals in the past weeks turning into demonstrations.
Ammar Qurabi, who heads the National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria, said authorities were forcing families of the dead to sign documents saying their loved ones were killed by "armed groups".
He added that about 100 people from the Homs region are missing in what could mean they were killed, detained or wounded.
Daraa has been without electricity, water and telephones since last Monday, with residents fleeing across the border. The uprising began in Daraa, sparked by the arrest of teenagers who wrote anti-regime graffiti on a wall.
Sporadic gunfire was heard in the city yesterday, mainly from the central area, a witness said. He said for the past week, troops had been allowing women to go out to buy bread, but yesterday they were stopped.
In the city of Banias, a resident said armed forces had withdrawn from the city centre after taking up positions there earlier in the month.
The witnesses' accounts could not be independently verified. All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisal.
Syria has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted access to trouble spots, making it almost impossible to verify the dramatic events shaking one of the most authoritarian regimes in the Arab world.
Large demonstrations were reported on Friday in the capital of Damascus, the central city of Homs, the coastal cities of Banias and Latakia, the northern cities of Raqqa and Hama, and the north-eastern town of Qamishli, near the Turkish border.
Syrian TV said on Friday that military and police forces came under attack by "armed terrorists" in Daraa and Homs, killing four soldiers and three police officers.
Two soldiers were captured but were later rescued by the army, state TV said. The station also said one of its cameramen was injured in Latakia by an armed gang.
The US imposed financial penalties on three top Syrian officials, including Assad's brother, Maher, as well as Syria's intelligence agency and Iran's Revolutionary Guard over the crackdown.
Meanwhile, diplomats say the UN's nuclear watchdog agency is setting the stage for potential UN Security Council action on Syria as it prepares a report assessing that a Syrian target bombed by Israeli warplanes in 2007 was likely a secretly built nuclear reactor meant to produce plutonium.