DAMASCUS // A continuing military crackdown and new gesture toward reform did nothing to prevent thousands of protesters taking to the streets in many parts of Syria yesterday, with reports that at least 34 people were killed in the central city of Hama.
President Bashar al Assad's forces renewed their assault on towns seen as key to the demonstrations calling for an end to his family's 40-year rule. The regime also cut internet service across most of the country, a potentially dire blow for a movement that motivates people with graphic YouTube videos of the crackdown and organises protests on Facebook pages.
"There is no end in sight, there will be more protests and deaths, this is escalating," said an independent Syrian analyst, on condition of anonymity. "The people are not content with promises of reform made by the government and the government has no intent of backing down to popular demand."
The internet shutdown, if it continues, could also hamper the movement's ability to reach the world outside Syria, where the government has severely restricted the media and expelled most foreign reporters, making it nearly impossible to independently verify what is happening there. Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said tens of thousands of people were protesting in Hama when security forces opened fire. He said the Hama protest was among the largest yet in the uprising that began in mid-March.
He added that security forces shot dead one person in the village of Has in the northern province of Idlib.
"It is a real massacre. It is terrorism by itself and they want the people to stay silent," said an activist in Hama. The activist, who like many involved in the protests requested anonymity to avoid reprisals, said hospitals were calling on people to donate blood.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon yesterday expressed alarm at the heightened Syrian government crackdown on protests and said there were now more than 1,000 dead. "The secretary general is alarmed at the escalation of violence in Syria, which has reportedly left at least 70 killed over the past week alone, bringing the total casualties since mid-March to over 1,000 dead, many more injured and thousands arrested," said a UN spokeswoman Vannina Maestracci. It was the first death toll from the protests given by the UN leadership. Syria's state-run TV said three "saboteurs" were killed when police tried to stop them from setting a government building on fire in Hama. In 1982, Mr al Assad's father and predecessor Hafez Assad, crushed a Sunni uprising by shelling Hama, killing 10,000 to 25,000 people, according to Amnesty International estimates.
Syrian authorities insist that, as in the 1980s, they are facing an insurgency by Islamic militants, backed by foreign enemies of the state.
Those claims have been widely refuted by activists, independent analysts, human rights monitors, UN agencies, and even close international allies of Damascus - all of whom say the uprising is overwhelmingly peaceful with demonstrators legitimately demanding an end to decades of unaccountable autocracy.
As yesterday's prayers ended, worshippers left the mosques and marched in cities, towns and villages. Syrian security forces dispersed some, mostly using batons, tear gas and water cannons and fired live ammunition in at least two locations in southern and northeastern towns.
An eyewitness in Hama said there were around 150,000 demonstrators, an unprecedented number if confirmed. He described a chaotic scene, with security forces firing tear gas and live ammunition, and snipers shooting from the rooftops as people fled.
"There are many killed and wounded people, the hospital is full," he said. "I fled the area but I can still hear sporadic gunfire."
Syrian troops also pounded the central town of Rastan with artillery and gunfire for a seventh day, killing at least two people. The Local Co-ordination Committees, which helps organise and document Syria's protests, said troops also opened fire on residents fleeing the town.
Friday protests have been a key barometer of the uprising but, increasingly, demonstrations are taking place on a daily basis. Syrian state media yesterday said some public rallies had taken place but continued to pour scorn on reports that army and security units were using live ammunition against peaceful protesters.
The opposition had called for yesterday's nationwide rallies to commemorate the nearly 30 children killed by Mr al Assad's regime during the uprising.
In the southern city of Daraa, where the uprising began 10 weeks ago, scores of people rallied in the city's old quarter, chanting "No dialogue with the killers of children," an activist said.
The protesters were referring to a decree by Mr al Assad to set up a committee tasked with leading a national dialogue.
The regime also released hundreds of political prisoners this week after Mr al Assad issued a pardon. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said leading Kurdish politician Mashaal Tammo and Muhannad al-Hassani, who heads the Syrian Organisation for Human Rights, were released on Thursday.
Yesterday's protests reached nearly throughout the country, from a village in the south to a city in the north-east. Protesters even gathered in several Damascus suburbs, though the capital has not seen the kind of disruption as many other cities.
A Syrian activist said authorities cut internet service in several parts of the country, apparently to prevent activists from uploading footage of the protests and from organising new resistance. In Damascus, several people contacted over the phone said the internet was down.
Video surfaced earlier this week on YouTube, Facebook and websites of Hamza al-Khatib, a 13-year-old boy whose tortured and mutilated body was returned to his family weeks after he disappeared during the protests. The boy has since become a symbol to Syria's uprising and many people carried his posters during rallies this week.
* With additional reporting from Associated Press