(The Guardian) Violence escalated in the southern Syrian city of Deraa as protests entered a sixth day. At least 15 protesters are known to have been shot dead on Wednesday and scores more injured.
In a sign that the Syrian regime is using a brutal crackdown rather than concessions to quell protests, security forces opened fire on people in three separate incidents, according to human rights activists.
Tyres burn in the street in Deraa, Syria, hours after police shot anti-government protesters. Photograph: Hussein Malla/AP
At 1am on Wednesday morning, at least six people were killed when security forces opened fire on protesters surrounding the Omari mosque, after cutting electricity and communications to the site that
has become the focus of demonstrations. During the day, several were reported shot as they attended funerals of victims of the mosque shooting. Syrian security forces later opened fire on scores of young people from surrounding towns as they marched towards Deraa, offering support to the protests, activists said.
"The government promised it would consider its citizen's demands, and then it decided to attack them," said Mohammed al-Abdullah, a prominent activist in exile in the US who is in close contact with the Deraa protesters. "These were fully prepared and full-scale attacks."
According to human rights organisations, the government has also rounded up scores of demonstrators, activists and journalists. Yesterday, Mazen Darwish, the head of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, which was officially closed down by the authorities in 2009, was arrested. Darwish, who has been commenting on the protests in the media, was briefly detained after a protest on Wednesday last week calling for the release of political prisoners.
Amnesty International said it knows of 93 people who were arrested between 8 and 23 March who remain detained in unknown locations. It said the real number of arrests was likely to be "considerably higher".
France, which has led efforts in the past four years to bring Damascus back into the international fold, became the latest in a string of governments and organisations to condemn the violence. It called for political reforms "without delay".
But observers said the window for negotiations and reforms is quickly closing.
Leaders in Deraa had issued a range of demands to the government, including the release of political prisoners from the area, the freedom to buy and sell property without permission of local security forces and the dismissal of the governor of Deraa. So far, only the last demand has been met.
"By using such disproportionate violence against its own citizens, neither the government nor the people can be expected to negotiate," said Abdullah, adding that without talks there was no clear solution to the violence. "I am scared because I don't know how this will end. I fear escalating anger will lead to an evermore brutal crackdown."
Syria's government has continued to blame the violence on outside perpetrators. it called the shootings at the Omari mosque the work of "armed gangs". Activists dispute the claims.
Despite protesters not yet calling for President Bashar al-Assad to step down, the unrest is the biggest domestic challenge to the regime since the 1970s. There are calls for a mass protests tomorrow in solidarity with the Deraa activists.
• Katherine Marsh is a pseudonym for a journalist who lives in Damascus