DAMASCUS (AFP) – Harrowing eyewitness accounts mounted on Saturday after Syrian forces backed by helicopter gunships killed at least 25 protesters, prompting the US to toughen its stance on President Bashar al-Assad.
As the turmoil neared the three-month mark, the international outcry grew over Assad’s use of deadly force against his own people, with protests planned in more than a dozen world cities including Montreal, New York and Paris.
An estimated 3,000 mourners on Saturday filed through the coastal city of Latakia for the funeral of one of at least nine protesters shot dead by security forces the day before, activists said.
The mourners chanted slogans praising the “martyrs,” an activist who was present said.
Around the country, 25 people were killed on Friday, including three in the Qabun district of Damascus, after protesters took to the streets after the main weekly Muslim prayers, activists said.
Fridays have become a rallying point in the revolt against Assad’s regime, whose backlash on pro-democracy protests that erupted in mid-March has killed more than 1,200 civilians, rights groups say.
The death toll mounted as detailed accounts emerged from some of the thousands of refugees who fled to Turkey from bloodshed in the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughur.
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reported that helicopters flying over the town of Maaret al-Numan, near Jisr al-Shughur, had fired on a police station which protesters had seized.
State television reported that “armed terrorists” had opened fire there, killing and wounding members of the police and security forces.
The broadcaster said the Jisr al-Shughur operation had come “at the request of residents” to deal with “armed gangs.” Soldiers had arrested “elements of the armed groups” there, it added.
Rights activists said Jisr al-Shughur was largely deserted after most of its 50,000 inhabitants fled, many to neighbouring Turkey, as tanks and troops began converging there midweek.
Syrian army deserters who also fled to Turkey have told of atrocities committed by soldiers in suppressing protests, under threat of execution if they disobeyed orders.
With a blank stare in his eyes, Tahal al-Lush said the “cleansing” in Ar-Rastan, a town of 50,000 people in Homs province, pushed him to desert.
“We were told that people were armed there. But when we arrived, we saw that they were ordinary civilians. We were ordered to shoot them,” said Lush, who showed his military passbook and other papers as proof of identity.
“When we entered the houses, we opened fire on everyone, the young, the old… Women were raped in front of their husbands and children,” he said.
A second conscript, Mohammed Mirwan Khalaf, said he was in a unit stationed in Idlib, near the border.
“Just in front of me, a professional soldier pulled out his knife and stabbed a civilian in the head, for no reason,” he said.
The turmoil has pushed 4,600 Syrians to seek refuge across the border in Turkey, a government official in Ankara told AFP.
In the Turkish city of Antakya, Nabil, one of the last Syrian aid workers out of Jisr al-Shughur, recalled the roar of helicopters and a “skull split in two” before he collapsed with a bullet in his back.
From his hospital bed, the Red Crescent employee recounted his last sights of the town last weekend, where Damascus said 120 police and troops were massacred amid anti-regime protests.
“The wounded, yes, I’ve seen hundreds. And dozens of deaths, maybe a hundred,” the 29-year-old said, adding that he also saw victims of torture.
Washington significantly toughened its stance on Syria on Friday, calling for an “immediate end to brutality and violence” and warning Assad was leading his nation on a “dangerous path,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said on Saturday that the Security Council should support a resolution demanding an immediate end to the crackdown.
“A veto by Russia and China to protect the Syrian government and block efforts to stop the killings would be a serious betrayal of Syria’s beleaguered citizens,” said Philippe Bolopion, UN director at the rights watchdog.
Meanwhile, several dozen Syrians in Algeria and Tunisia protested outside their country’s embassy in the respective capitals on Saturday, chanting that the Syrian revolution was “a revolution of free men.”