Syrian forces seal city after clashes kill 5

Last Updated: Tue, Mar 22, 2011 17:20 hrs

Syrian police sealed off a southern city Saturday after security forces killed at least five protesters there in the first sign that the Arab world's pro-democracy push is seeping into one of the region's most repressive places.

Residents of Daraa were being allowed to leave but not enter the city on Saturday, said prominent Syrian rights activist Mazen Darwish. The quick cordon seemed aimed at choking off any spread of unrest after Friday's clashes and emotional funeral processions for the dead on Saturday.

President Bashar Assad, who has boasted that his country is immune to the cries for change that have already toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, sent a delegation to the southern city to offer his condolences to families of the victims, according to a Syrian official.

Serious disturbances in Syria would be a major expansion of the region's unrest. Syria, a predominantly Sunni country ruled by minority Alawites, has a history of brutally crushing dissent.

Security forces launched a harsh crackdown on Friday's demonstrations calling for political freedoms. Protests took place in at least five cities, including the capital, Damascus. But only in Daraa did they turn deadly.

Accounts from activists and social media say at least five people died in the gravest unrest in years in Syria.

A Syrian official acknowledged only two deaths and told The Associated Press that authorities would bring those responsible to trial. The official said that even if an investigation shows security officers were guilty, they will be put on trial "no matter how high their rank is." He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations that bar him from being identified by name.

Another government official said top Syrian leaders held a meeting Saturday in which they decided to form acommittee to investigate the circumstances of Friday's violence and to punish those responsible for the deaths in Daraa.

"The Syrian president categorically rejects the shedding of any Syrian blood," the official said, also on condition of anonymity.

A Syrian lawmaker from Daraa, Khaled Abboud, blamed Islamic extremists for Friday's violence.

"There is a group of Islamic extremists, they have a private or foreign agenda," he told AP. He did not elaborate.

Activist Darwish, who said he was in contact with residents of Daraa, said four of the dead were buried in the city Saturday. Thousands of people took part in the funeral under the watch of large numbers of security agents but there was no violence, he said.

Later in the day, an activist in Damascus also in contact with Daraa residents said security forces fired tear gas at mourners chanting "God, Syria and freedom only." He said several people were detained and others suffered from tear gas inhalation. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The London-based Syrian Human Rights Committee said that during the funerals security forces raided some homes and detained people. Citing residents in the city, it added that troops were in full control of the streets.

The AP could not independently verify the accounts or reach residents of the city directly by phone.

Syria places tight restrictions on the movements of journalists in the country when it comes to security issues and state-run media and officials rarely comment on such sensitive matters.

A video of Friday's clashes posted on YouTube showed a bloodied young man, who appeared to be dead, being carried by a several people. Shortly afterward, shooting is heard and crowds scatter. The authenticity of the footage could not be confirmed.

In Washington, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said, "The United States strongly condemns the violence that has taken place in Syria." He added that the U.S. calls on the Syrian government to allow demonstrations to take place peacefully and for those responsible for violence to "be held accountable."

The violence was the worst since 2004 when clashes that began in the northeastern city of Qamishli between Syrian Kurds and security forces left at least 25 people dead and some 100 injured.

Although Assad keeps a tight lid on any form of political dissent, he also draws considerable popularity for being seen as one of the few Arab leaders willing to stand up to Israel.

Assad told The Wall Street Journal in February that Syria is insulated from the upheaval in the Arab world because he understands his people's needs and has united them in common cause against Israel.

Also Saturday, Abdul-Karim al-Rihawi, head of the Arab League for Human Rights, said 10 women who were detained on Wednesday after protesting in front of the Syrian Interior Ministry in central Damascus have begun a hunger strike.

Citing relatives, al-Rihawi said the women were being held in Douma prison on the outskirts of Damascus, adding that one of them is suffering from a "serious condition."

The women were among 33 people, most of them relatives of political detainees in Syria, detained Wednesday. They were charged by a prosecutor Thursday with hurting the state's image.

Separately, Syria said Saturday it was reducing compulsory military service by three months, making it 15 months for educated males and 18 months for those who have not completed primary education.

The state-run news agency said the new legislation will go into effect by June.