DAMASCUS — Tens of thousands of Syrians gathered on Sunday in Douma near Damascus to bury eight people killed during pro-reform protests, as a Facebook group drummed up week-long rallies in their honour.
The funerals came as President Bashar al-Assad asked former agriculture minister Adel Safar to form a new government and as communications networks in the protest-hit country failed for several hours.
“The town is in mourning, all the shops are shut,” Muntaha al-Atrash, spokeswoman of the Syrian rights group Sawasiya (Equal), told AFP, adding that “at least 20,000″ came to the Douma funerals which passed off peacefully.
“Protests will continue. The people will not stay silent any longer because the barrier of fear has been broken,” she said.
“Eight people were buried in Daraa,” Mazen Darwish, director of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression which had its headquarters shut down by the authorities in 2009, told AFP.
“There are three other people who were killed Friday but they are from neighbouring villages Arabnin and Isbinah,” he said.
Activists blamed the deaths after Friday weekly prayers on a crackdown by security forces, although government officials pinned responsibility on an “armed group” which opened fire from rooftops on both protesters and police.
“He who kills his own people is a traitor” and “where are the gangs?” people chanted after mourners marched from the cemetery through the city centre before settling down for a sit-in outside the town hall.
Security forces kept a low profile in Douma on Sunday, residents and mourners told AFP, but they did check the identities of those entering the suburb north of Damascus as volunteers took on the task of directing traffic.
Facebook, meanwhile, called for a “Week of the Martyrs” protest in Syria in honour of those killed in the security clampdown on pro-reform rallies that mobilised thousands on the Muslim day of rest and prayer.
“The Week of the Martyrs will be a thorn on the regime’s side,” the organisers of Facebook group Syrian Revolution 2011 said, designating Tuesday as the first day of protests focused on coastal towns “far from the capital.”
The group also called for a boycott of cell phone companies on Wednesday, a rally against the ruling Baath party on Thursday outside its Damascus headquarters, and countrywide demonstrations on Friday.
Assad on Sunday tasked Safar to form a new government, the state-run news agency SANA reported, in a fresh bid to quell pro-reform protests and after he came short of lifting emergency laws in place since 1963.
Activists on Saturday said 46 people were detained by security forces in a wave of arrests that hit protest centres including Douma, the southern tribal town of Daraa and the northern industrial city of Homs.
A Douma resident said 90 people who had been detained in a roundup by security forces were released late on Saturday and 15 were “still missing,” while a human rights activist told AFP seven remained behind bars.
“We counted them,” said the resident. “Most of the people detained say it’s really bad but are afraid to give details. They were not tortured but they are beaten before being detained.”
The authorities also freed Soheir Attasi, a human rights activist detained during a March 16 rally in Damascus calling for the release of political prisoners, a lawyer said.