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Syrian forces fire at protesters, unrest intensifies


Protestors gather near the Omari Mosque in the southern old city of Deraa March 22, 2011.REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri
Protestors gather near the Omari Mosque in the southern old city of Deraa March 22, 2011.REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian forces fired shots at hundreds of protesters who had gathered overnight in Homs city in defiance of warning by the authorities to halt what they called an insurrection, a rights campaigner said on Tuesday.

A member of the security police addressed the protesters at Clock Square through a loud speaker asking them to leave, and then the forces opened fire, said the human rights campaigner, who is in contact with protesters in the square.

Tear gas was also used. At least one protester was injured, the activist added. Two residents of Homs also said they heard the sound of gunfire coming from around the square.

Several hours earlier, Syrian state television broadcast an interior ministry statement that described the wave of unrest in Syria as an insurrection, pointing specifically to Homs as one of two cities where "armed groups belonging to Salafist organizations" were trying to terrorize the population.

Salafism is a strict form of Sunni Islam which many Arab governments equate with militant groups like al Qaeda.

President Bashar al-Assad announced on Saturday that he would end nearly half a century of emergency rule with legislation that should be in place by next week, but his pledge did little to appease protesters calling for political freedoms.

Rights campaigners say more than 200 people have been killed since the protests began.

Syrian authorities have intensified bans on independent media since protests challenging the authoritarian rule of Assad erupted more than a month ago.

No independent media is allowed into Homs or other cities witnessing unprecedented pro-democracy demonstrations. Several international journalists have been expelled or arrested.

Thousands demanded the overthrow of Assad on Monday at the funerals of 17 protesters killed in Homs, 165 km (100 miles) north of Damascus. Human rights campaigners said the 17 had been killed late on Sunday during protests against the death in custody of a tribal leader in Homs.

ALLEYWAY TO ALLEYWAY

"From alleyway to alleyway, from house to house, we want to overthrow you, Bashar," the mourners chanted, according to a witness at the funeral.

Further north, in Jisr al-Shughour, 1,000 people called for "the overthrow of the regime," echoing the chants of protesters who overthrew leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, at the funeral of a man who they said had been killed by security forces.

Protests against the authoritarian rule of Assad's Baath Party erupted in the southern city of Deraa more than a month ago, and have spread across the country.

The government says Syria is the target of a conspiracy and authorities blame the violence on armed gangs and infiltrators supplied with weapons from Lebanon and Iraq. Opposition groups say there is no evidence of a conspiracy.

The interior ministry statement said Salafist groups were trying "to spread terror across Syria ... using the march of freedom and reform that was launched according to a timetable by President Assad in his guiding speech."

The demonstrations present the gravest challenge yet to Assad, who succeeded his late father Hafez al-Assad, who died in 2000 after 30 years of rule.

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