x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Thousands march as Syria death toll rises

Funerals held for the 50 protesters fatally shot after security forces opened fire with live ammunition on a crowd.

DAMASCUS // Tens of thousands of mourners marched through Hama yesterday, as the city buried those killed less than 24 hours earlier during a vast anti-government demonstration.

About 50 protesters were fatally shot by security forces, which opened fire with live ammunition on a crowd, estimated to be up to 100,000 strong, in the central Syrian city on Friday, according to human-right monitors and opposition activists. In addition more than 100 civilians were wounded, they said.

With a communications blackout in place, including internet shutdowns, details of the full scale of Friday's bloodshed have been slow to emerge.

But human-right groups yesterday updated their figures for the number killed from 34 to more than 60 nationwide. Most of the deaths were in Hama and the surrounding area with other fatalities reported near the northern city of Idleb and in the capital, Damascus.

The death toll rose, activists said, as protesters with serious gunshot wounds to the head and chest died in hospital.

Medical centres around Hama struggled to cope with the number of casualties.

"There is no limit on the number of people the security will kill," said a Syrian civil-rights activist on condition of anonymity.

"We saw in Hama on Friday a huge demonstration and the security didn't know what else to do except shoot," the rights activist added.

He said that protesters taking to the streets in Syria now did so with the knowledge they could be shot or arrested and tortured.

"The people you see out at protests realise what could happen to them and still they come," he said. "That shows just how determined they are to bring about political change, and their numbers are growing and will continue to grow."

Syrian state media issued their own version of Friday's events, saying that nearly 10,000 people marching in Hama had been shot at by "armed gangs", with some 20 civilians killed nationwide.

Syrian authorities insist they are fighting an Islamist insurgency, which is responsible for all deaths, rather than an overwhelmingly peaceful popular uprising demanding sweeping reform to an uacccountable, autocratic system of government.

The rise to prominence of Hama, and nearby towns, as a major zone of demonstrations, and killing, is of huge symbolic importance in Syria.

Three decades ago the authorities unleashed a powerful military force on the city to crush an uprising by Islamist militants, killing between 5,000 and 20,000, according to various estimates.

The actual number of dead was never determined, with the government of the day, under Hafez al Assad - father of the current ruler, Bashar al Assad - imposing a media blackout and ensuring that no detailed, independent assessment of the violence could ever be made.

Although the current government's claim about fighting Islamist militants is the same (a claim rejected by the United Nations, human-rights groups and Turkey, a close ally of Syria), the advent of video-enabled mobile phones and internet links has meant that images of demonstrations and shootings by security forces have been published and televised across the world.

"In Hama in the 1980s no picture was taken to prove that anything had happened, not one single photograph got out to show what the government had done there," said a Syrian political analyst.

"Now, even with internet shutdowns and communications cut, evidence of what is happening is there for all to see on television within hours."

Damascus is facing growing international condemnation for its crackdown on demonstrators. On Thursday, UN officials tasked with genocide prevention issued a statement saying they were "gravely concerned" at the increasing loss of life in Syria as a result of the continued "violent suppression" of anti-government demonstrations.

"The deployment of armed forces and the use of live fire, tanks and artillery in response to peaceful protests, and the targeting of residential areas where protests have taken place, are unacceptable under any circumstances," said Francis Deng, a special adviser to the UN on the Prevention of Genocide, and Edward Luck, a special adviser to the UN on protecting civilian populations.

On Friday, Marta Santos Pais, a UN special representative on violence against children, said those responsible for "serious child-rights violations" in Syria must be held accountable.

Human-rights groups say dozens of children have been killed during the uprising. Most infamously Hamza al Khatib, a 13-year-old from the southern city of Deraa, was shot three times.

His corpse was returned to his family last month showing what human-rights groups say were signs of severe torture.

Mr al Assad has promised a full and prompt investigation, but Syrian television has already dismissed the claims as lies.

In an effort to defuse the crisis, Mr al Assad has also set up a national dialogue committee.

Made up of government officials and some independent figures, it met yesterday for talks on "activating dialogue and finding political solutions for current challenges", according to the official news agency Sana.

Opposition groups have said this and other reform gestures are worthless unless security forces stop using violence.

They have also questioned the seriousness of promised reforms, given that major demands, including an end to the rule of the Baath Party, have been dismissed out of hand.

Since protests began in mid-March, more than 1,000 civilians have been killed according to human-rights groups, with about 10,000 people arrested.

The Syrian government rejects those numbers, and says 70 civilians have died, while 120 security service personnel have lost their lives.