(Updates death toll in first paragraph. See EXTRA and MET for more on the regional unrest.)
July 22 (Bloomberg) -- Syrian forces killed at least eight people at anti-government rallies today as more than 1 million demonstrators across the country defied stepped-up security, human-rights activists said.
Those killed were in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Idlib, while one protester died from wounds sustained earlier in the week, Ammar Qurabi, of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, and Mahmoud Merhi, of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, said in phone interviews.
Gunfire was also heard in Qamishli and Daraa, leaving some people wounded, Qurabi said. Protesters gathered in the cities of Hama in the west, Homs in central Syria and Latakia on the Mediterranean, as well as the northern city of Qamishli, home to the Kurdish minority, the activists said. There were also rallies in the southern province of Daraa, where the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s government began, they said.
Syrian government forces stepped up security around Damascus late yesterday ahead of the Muslim Friday prayers, which have been followed by protests for the past four months. Security was “tight” in the Qaboun, Harasta, Douma, Zabadani, Rukneddine and Midan districts of the capital, Merhi said. Raids and the arrest of dissidents preceded the deployment yesterday.
The protests are part of the wave of unrest across the Middle East and North Africa this year that has unseated the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia. Assad has blamed the dissent in Syria on a foreign conspiracy while saying demonstrators’ demands “have merit” and that changes are needed.
Killed by Military
The military killed at least three people in Homs yesterday, one person in Idlib in the north and another in Qaboun, Qurabi said. On July 15, more than a million protesters took to the streets nationwide after Friday prayers, according to Merhi and Qurabi.
Syrian security forces have killed more than 1,900 people since the uprising began and jailed thousands, the two activists said. Their groups have compiled the names of those killed, injured or detained. Thousands of Syrians have also fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
The government has stepped up arrests even as it engages in a so-called national dialogue with opponents, Human Rights Watch said in a report this week. “President Assad talks reform but continues to practice repression, not only through the widespread killings of demonstrators but also through mass arrests,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
A committee of Syrian intellectuals and academics convened by Assad under the national dialogue called for a review of the constitution, the creation of a human-rights council and the release of political prisoners.
Protests are likely to gain momentum during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in August, and authorities are probably trying to quell the unrest before then, Merhi and Qurabi said.
--Editors: Ben Holland, Heather Langan, Philip Sanders, Jennifer M. Freedman.
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