Syrian army shells town, protesters gear for rally

Syrian security forces opened fire during one of the largest anti-government  protests so far in the 10-week uprising, and activists said at least 34 people  were killed Friday in a city where thousands died in a failed 1982 revolt  against the regime.

President Bashar Assad’s forces renewed their assault on towns seen as key to  the demonstrations calling for an end to his family’s 40-year rule. The regime  also cut Internet service across most of the country, a potentially dire blow  for a movement that motivates people with graphic YouTube videos of the  crackdown and loosely organizes protests on Facebook pages.

The Internet shutdown, if it continues, could also hamper the movement’s  ability to reach the world outside Syria, where the government has severely  restricted the media and expelled foreign reporters, making it nearly impossible  to independently verify what is happening there. Still many activists found  alternate ways to log on and upload videos, such as satellite connections.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said  tens of thousands of people were protesting in Hama when security forces opened  fire. He said the Hama protest was among the largest yet in the uprising that  began in mid-March.

Friday’s protests appeared to be the biggest of the 10-week uprising, with  people gathering in larger numbers in cities and towns that before had less  participation. Protesters also gathered in several Damascus suburbs, as well as  the capital’s central Midan neighborhood, which has seen demonstrations in  recent weeks.

Abdul-Rahman said security forces killed one person in the village of Has in  the northern province of Idlib. Another rights activist, Mustafa Osso said  security forces shot dead three protesters in the northeastern city of Deir  el-Zour. State-run TV said five policemen were wounded there but did not say  how.

“It is a real massacre. It is terrorism by itself and they want the people to  stay silent,” said an activist in Hama. The activist, who like many involved in  the protests requested anonymity to avoid reprisals, said hospitals were calling  on people to donate blood.

Syria’s state-run TV said three “saboteurs” were killed when police tried to  stop them from setting a government building on fire in Hama. The Syrian  government blames armed gangs and religious extremists for the violence.

In 1982, Assad’s father and predecessor Hafez Assad, crushed a Sunni uprising  by shelling Hama, killing 10,000 to 25,000 people, according to Amnesty  International estimates.

As the Friday Muslim prayers ended, worshippers left the mosques and marched  in cities, towns and villages. Syrian security forces dispersed some, mostly  using batons, tear gas and water cannons and fired live ammunition in at least  two locations in southern and northeastern towns.

Rights groups say more than 1,100 people have been killed since the revolt  against Assad erupted in mid-March.

An eyewitness in Hama reached by The Associated Press said there were around  150,000 demonstrators, an unprecedented number if confirmed. He described a  chaotic scene, with security forces firing tear gas and live ammunition, and  snipers shooting from the rooftops as people fled.

“There are many killed and wounded people, the hospital is full,” he said. “I  fled the area but I can still hear sporadic gunfire.”

Syrian troops also pounded the central town of Rastan with artillery and  gunfire for a seventh day, killing at least two people. The Local Coordination  Committees, which helps organize and document Syria’s protests, says troops also  opened fire on residents fleeing the town.

Friday’s deaths bring the toll in Rastan and nearby Talbiseh to 74 killed  since last Saturday.

The opposition had called for Friday’s nationwide rallies to commemorate the  nearly 30 children killed by Assad’s regime during the uprising.

In the southern city of Daraa, where the uprising began 10 weeks ago, scores  of people rallied in the city’s old quarter, chanting “No dialogue with the  killers of children,” an activist said.

The protesters were referring to a decree by Assad to set up a committee  tasked with leading a national dialogue.

The regime also released hundreds of political prisoners this week after  Assad issued a pardon. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said leading  Kurdish politician Mashaal Tammo and Muhannad al-Hassani, who heads the Syrian  Organization for Human Rights, were released Thursday.

A Syrian activist said authorities cut Internet service in several parts of  the country, apparently to prevent activists from uploading footage of the  protests and the government crackdown and from organizing new resistance. In  Damascus, several people contacted over the phone said the Internet was  down.

Renesys, a trusted U.S. firm that specializes in keeping tabs on Internet  connectivity, confirmed the Syrian outage and said two-thirds of all Syrian  networks were unavailable.

Video surfaced earlier this week on YouTube, Facebook and websites of Hamza  al-Khatib, a 13-year-old boy whose tortured and mutilated body was returned to  his family weeks after he disappeared during the protests.

The boy has since become a symbol to Syria’s uprising and many people carried  his posters during anti-regime rallies this week.

Beirut – AP/