20,000 gather for burials in Syria protest city, say activists

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DAMASCUS: Some 20,000 people gathered Thursday in the Syrian city of Daraa for the burial of victims killed by police gunfire the day before, chanting support for a rising anti-regime movement there, rights activists said.

One activist in Daraa, contacted by telephone, said the mourners made their way from the Omari mosque, where protesters have been holed up for a week, to the burial grounds under pouring rain, chanting: "With our souls, with our blood, we are loyal to our martyrs."

Rights activists have said at least 100 people were killed by gunfire on Wednesday alone in the city, a tribal area at Syria’s border with Jordan that has been the focal point of protests demanding the end of the country’s ruling regime.

"There are definitely more than 100 dead and the city will need a week to bury its martyrs," said human rights activist Ayman Al-Asswad in Daraa, reached by telephone from Nicosia.

Asswad said security forces had used live rounds when firing against demonstrators Wednesday in Daraa, 120 kilometres (75 miles) south of Damascus.

The victims reportedly include a doctor who had taken cover in an ambulance and an 11-year-old girl.

The report could not be independently confirmed, but AFP reporters witnessed sporadic shooting in Daraa Wednesday.

Buthaina Shaaban, media advisor to President Bashar Al-Assad, on Thursday put the death toll in Daraa at 10.

Syria, which is still under a 1963 emergency law banning demonstrations, is the latest state in the Middle East to witness an uprising against a long-running autocratic regime.

Budding protests against the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, whose Baath party has ruled Syria for 40 years, have surfaced but been contained in the capital Damascus, with Daraa emerging as the hub of the movement.

The protesters, who have not yet clearly been identified, for one week have been holed up in the Omari mosque in Daraa, a city home to an estimated 250,000 people.

Authorities in Daraa accuse the protesters of being Salafists, an austere branch of Sunni Islam.

State television on Wednesday aired footage of what it said was a stockpile of weapons inside the mosque.

Daraa remained tense Thursday, with shops and schools closed as anti-terrorism security forces patrolled the streets.

Entrances to the city were sealed off, and vehicles granted access by a military checkpoint had to pass through two separate intelligence checkpoints manned by armed plain-clothes forces.

Rights groups meanwhile reported more arrests in the Middle Eastern country infamous for its iron grip on security.

Amnesty International has compiled a list of 93 people, some for their online activities, arrested this month in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Banias, Daraa, Hama, Homs, and others.

"The real number of those arrested is likely to be considerably higher," read an Amnesty press release.

They are believed to be aged between 14 and 45 and include students, intellectuals, journalists and activists.

London-based rights group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Thursday reported the arrest of 27-year-old blogger Ahmad Hadifa at his office in Damascus over his support for the Daraa protests via Facebook.

Hadifa had previously been detained for days last month over his blogging activities.

Reporters Without Borders has said it was concerned journalist Mazen Darwish, founder of the Syrian center for media freedom, had been arrested.

Darwish was last seen shortly before noon on Wednesday.

Facebook group The Syria Revolution 2011, which by Thursday had attracted almost 75,000 fans, is calling for rallies at mosques across Syria Friday on a "Day of Dignity."

The state crackdown on protesters has drawn harsh condemnation from the United States, France and the United Nations.

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