Evidence of massacre as Syrians demand Assad exit

Videos and pictures of an alleged massacre by security forces in Homs have been uploaded to the internet

Video and photographic evidence of a massacre in the western Syrian city of Homs early on Tuesday morning has been uploaded to the internet by witnesses in the face of a complete information black-out by the ailing regime of Bashar al-Assad.

On Monday, around 10,000 people were gathered in the central Clock Square (pictured below) as the city, Syria's third largest, played host to the biggest protests since unrest began a month ago. They were demonstrating against the murder of 17 protesters on Sunday night.

According to Al Jazeera, security forces spoke to the crowds through loudspeakers in the early hours of this morning, giving them until 2.30am to clear the square. They then apparently opened fire on protesters at 2.15am in order to disperse them - an incident allegedly filmed in the YouTube footage above, this video and this video. Tear gas is also reported to have been used. The number of dead is unknown.

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Messages appearing on Tuesday morning on Twitter suggested the worst. "A massacre by the Syrian regime in #Homs #Syria after a night sit-in in the Freedom Square," tweeted one user. "Massacre in Homs 3am Protestors dead wounded. Syrians please spread the word. Wake uuuupppp were not asleep," said another.

One protester spoke to Australia's ABC News via Skype. The 25-year-old man said: "The police were about 200 metres from us and they started to attack us. We start running, it was like hell, bullets everywhere. First they were shooting in the air, then they were aiming toward us. About five to six people died last night."

Another activist told Associated Press that 17 people had been killed in the violence: "They shot at everything, there was smoke everywhere. I saw people on the ground, some shot in their feet, some in the stomach."

Maha Abu Shama, a Syria researcher for Amnesty International, told The First Post yesterday that it was very hard to get hold of reliable information: "We're tying to get hold of first hand witnesses, but people are scared to speak."

Many of those injured are unable to seek help for fear of being arrested by security forces, who have been routinely denying protesters access to medical treatment by waiting for them outside hospitals.

Amnesty also reported that five were killed on Monday night during protests in the principal port city of Latakia, bringing the total number of confirmed dead since unrest began to 220.

The Syrian interior ministry has put the outbreak of violence in Homs and elsewhere down to an "armed insurrection" organised by Salafist organisations. In a statement on Monday, it said: "What they did is an ugly crime severely punished by law. Their objective is to spread terror across Syria."

Salafism is an extremist offshoot of Sunni Islam, inspired by, but not necessarily linked to, al-Qaeda. A Salafist group was responsible for the kidnapping and murder of Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni in Gaza last week.

But the statement is largely seen as an excuse for the government to use heavy violence to crack down on protests under the banner of fighting terrorism.

"Syria's security forces have been firing on largely peaceful protesters in various parts of Syria," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "And instead of investigating those responsible for shootings, Syria's officials try to deflect responsibility by accusing unknown 'armed groups.'"

Protesters in Homs are among the first to be calling en masse for President Bashar al-Assad to step down, with cries such as, "From alleyway to alleyway, from house to house, we want to overthrow you, Bashar," and "Either freedom or death, the people want to topple this regime" being heard during Monday's protests.

Previously, demands have been for more political freedom and participation alongside greater economic opportunities. It is debatable whether al-Assad's lifting on Monday of the 48-year-old emergency laws, which gave Syria's government powers to arrest people without reason, will be enough to quell nationwide anger.

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Venetia Rainey is a Middle East correspondent for TheWeek.co.uk based in Lebanon where she works for the national English-language paper, The Daily Star. Follow her on Twitter @venetiarainey.