DAMASCUS (AFP) – More than 100,000 mourners turned out on Saturday for the funerals of protesters killed by Syrian security forces in Hama, a rights group said, warning that the country is nearing an “abyss”.
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights head Rami Abdel Rahman said more than 100,000 people took part in the funerals of at least 53 people killed during anti-regime protests on Friday across Syria, all but five of them in Hama.
Fresh clashes erupted in Jisrash Shughur, in the northwestern province of Idlib, on Saturday as security forces tried to disperse a column of protesters marching through the town, he said, without reporting more casualties.
The London-based Observatory said security forces on Friday sprayed gunfire on a crowd of more than 50,000 gathered for the central Syrian city of Hama’s biggest rally since the uprising broke out in mid-March.
In Homs, a city 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Hama, two people were killed Friday and another two in nearby Rastan, said Abdel Rahman. One person was also killed as security forces opened fire in Idlib province.
Residents of Hama said security forces stayed away from the funerals.
One resident said Internet access was still cut off in the city on Saturday, as users elsewhere in Syria said Internet services had been restored after a cut of more than 24 hours in several regions.
“Syria is sliding down a tunnel. We are at the edge of the abyss,” warned Abdel Rahman.
Syria’s official press, in its account of Friday’s violence, said 20 people were killed, including police, security agents and civilians “by shots fired by armed groups.”
In Hama, three “saboteurs” were killed in clashes with police as they set ablaze a government building, state television said, adding that 80 security force members were injured.
State television said late Friday that calm was returning to Hama after armed groups, taking advantage of a crowd of “nearly 10,000” opened fire on civilians and the security forces.
In 1982, Hama was the scene of a brutal crackdown that left an estimated 20,000 people dead when the Muslim Brotherhood rose up against the late Hafez al-Assad, father of current President Bashar al-Assad.
Amid mounting pressure the international front, Britain condemned the killings.
“The Syrian government has shown an abhorrent disregard for human life as ordinary Syrians took to the streets [Friday] in memory of the innocent children who have died during the unrest,” said Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt.
Activists had called the protests over the dozens of children killed in anti-government protests such as 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib, whom activists say was tortured to death, a charge denied by the authorities.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Friday expressed alarm at the heightened Syrian government crackdown.
He was “alarmed at the escalation of violence in Syria, which has reportedly left at least 70 killed over the past week alone, bringing the total casualties since mid-March to over 1,000 dead,” a spokeswoman said.
Rights groups say more than 1,100 civilians have been killed and at least 10,000 arrested in the brutal crackdown since the protests began in mid-March.
The Observatory’s Abdel Rahman, meanwhile, said 60 people were detained on Friday during a demonstration in the Mediterranean city of Banias.
But among hundreds released since Assad announced a general amnesty on Tuesday, opposition figure and writer Ali Abdullah, 61, walked free on Saturday, the Observatory said.
It said also released during the week were lawyer Muhannad al-Hasni, the head of an unlicensed rights group, and opposition figure Meshaal al-Tamo, leader of a banned Kurdish party.
The government insists the unrest is the work of “armed terrorist gangs” backed by Islamists and foreign agitators.