CAIRO — Hundreds of mourners Sunday attended funeral services in a suburb of Syria’s capital for eight demonstrators killed during protests Friday, while President Bashar al-Assad asked his former agricultural minister to form a new government in an apparent gesture toward reform.
Chanting “Allah, Syria, freedom!” and other pro-democracy slogans, mourners filled the streets around Douma’s mosque and marched to the cemetery behind the flag-draped coffins without interference from security forces, according to human rights activists who have been in contact with witnesses and members of the victims’ families. A three-day general strike also caused shop and business closures there.
Rights activists said sporadic outages of telephone and Internet service across Syria have increased the difficulty of following events in the tightly controlled nation. The government has not allowed foreign journalists into the country.
Activists said Sunday that eight people have been confirmed killed during protests in Douma, including a father of five, after security forces used tear gas and guns to put down the demonstrations after midday prayers Friday. Activists said several victims were targeted by snipers from the tops of buildings. Syria’s state-run news agency, which has blamed the unrest on “foreigners,” said “armed groups” had fired on the crowds from rooftops.
Demonstrations of varying intensity also were held Friday in Daraa, Homs, Baniyas, Idlib, Qamishli and the capital. One of the victims was a 23-year-old woman, identified by activists as Tahani al-Khalidi, who reportedly was shot while standing on a balcony of her family’s apartment to observe the protests in Homs.
The Martyrs’ Day protests, as organizers called them, were the most widespread since demonstrations against the dictatorial Assad regime began March 18. The latest round of protests followed Assad’s refusal, reiterated in a speech Wednesday, to repeal the 48-year-old emergency law that has allowed him and his enormous security apparatus to quash dissent. The Associated Press reported Sunday that at least 80 people have been killed in clashes with security forces since the wave of unrest began; Reuters put the toll at 60.
In addition to the eight buried in Douma on Sunday, activists say they think seven people from villages farther out were killed. But because their funerals had been held outside the city, rights workers have not been able to confirm the number, said Nadim Houry, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division.
Syrian officials have attempted to quell the violence by delaying the return of victims’ bodies so that their funerals would not turn into new demonstrations. On Saturday, security forces also rounded up dissidents in pre-dawn sweeps in Douma, Daraa and Homs.
Assad, who assumed the leadership of Syria after his father’s death 11 years ago, announced Sunday that he had appointed former agriculture minister Adel Safar to form a new government. Safar had served as agriculture minister from 2003 until the government was dissolved last week. Reuters reported that his tenure at the ministry included a water crisis, attributed to corruption and mismanagement, that displaced hundreds of thousands of people and forced Syria to become a net importer of grain.