DAMASCUS, Syria — An official told Reuters on Thursday that the main hospital in the southern Syrian city of Deraa had received the bodies of 37 protesters after clashes between security forces and protesters.
Witnesses earlier said that security forces had opened fire on hundreds of youths at the northern entrance to Deraa on Wednesday afternoon, in escalating violence between govermnent forces and anti-government protesters.
Seven were reportedly killed when Syrian government forces stormed a mosque in the southern city of Deraa early in the day.
The government, however, blamed the violence on an "armed gang," according to Al Jazeera, quoting the state-run SANA news agency.
The protesters were calling for political freedoms and an end to corruption and had said earlier that they were going to remain in the mosque until their demands were met. According to several reports, they were armed.
Protests have been challenging the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad in 2000, for the past six days. Reuters reported that at least 44 civilians had been killed since last Friday.
His ruling Baath Party has banned opposition and enforced emergency laws since 1963.
The government’s response here so far is a combination of denial and intimidation. The city and several surrounding towns, all embroiled in protest, have been cut off by the military.
Syrian journalists attempting to enter the city have been turned back. Phone lines are being closely monitored and citizens known to associate with journalists – foreign and domestic – have been rounded up and questioned.
During the first few days of protests, state media – all news in the country is government controlled and many outlets are known to be direct representatives of the state’s position on matters – mostly ignored the events. Only since violence escalated has the internal press begun covering the events, issuing lengthy articles summarising the various culprits blamed for the violence, including “aggressive armed gangs” and alleging that a million text messages have been sent from Israel to residents of the town, urging them to revolt.
While some had speculated that the protests would be relatively limited, after this latest round of violence, Damascenes expect anti-government campaigns to escalate.
“Now, this is just going to go on and on,” said a journalist from Damascus.
Deraa, which has been the scene of anti-government protests since Friday, is on the border with Jordan. Residents said heavy gunfire was heard near the Omari mosque in the early hours of Wednesday.
The attack occurred a day after the U.N. Office for Human Rights said the authorities "need to put an immediate halt to the excessive use of force against peaceful protesters, especially the use of live ammunition."
On Tuesday, Vice President Farouq al-Shara said Assad was committed to "continue the path of reform and modernization in Syria," Reuters reported, quoting Lebanon's al-Manar television.