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Assad sacks governor, Syria death toll mounts

DAMASCUS (AFP) ― Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sacked the governor of Hama on Saturday, a day after hundreds of thousands rallied against the regime in the hotbed city, as activists said the latest crackdown cost 28 lives.

Anti-regime dissent billowed on Friday in response to a call by a Facebook group for massive protests to demand the ouster of Assad and his autocratic regime.

In Hama alone, 500,000 people took to the streets, without security forces intervening, activists said, calling it the single largest demonstration of its kind since the pro-democracy movement erupted on March 15.

Assad reacted to the affront by sacking the governor of Hama, a city with a bloody past where an estimated 20,000 people were killed in 1982 when the army put down an Islamist revolt against the rule of his late father, Hafez al-Assad.

“The Syrian president signed a decree today relieving Doctor Ahmad Khaled Abdel Aziz of his post as governor of Hama,” said a news flash on state television.

Most of Friday’s victims were killed in northwest Syria’s Idlib province, where troops backed by tanks have swept through villages all week to crush dissent.

“Sixteen people were killed” in Idlib on Friday, Ammar Qorabi, the head of the National Organization for Human Rights, said on Saturday.

Three of them were women who died when the army shelled a chicken hatchery in the village of Al-Bara, Qorabi said.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said dozens of arrests were made in villages of the Idlib region, including of the top Muslim cleric of Al-Bara.

And at least 20 people were arrested in the Daraya area near Damascus for having taken part in anti-regime protests.

Another 10 people were killed on Friday when security forces opened fire to disperse protests in several cities, including eight in the central protest hub of Homs and two in the Damascus neighborhood of Qadam.

And one person was reported killed in Syria’s second-largest city Aleppo and another in the Mediterranean coastal city of Latakia.

Friday’s protests followed a call from the Facebook group The Syrian Revolution 2011, which urged people to rally, branding July 1 “the Friday of departure.”

“We don’t love you ... Go away, you and your party,” it said in a message addressed to Assad.

Qorabi, in a statement, said Friday’s protests were the largest since mid-March and had spread to more Syrian regions.

“The number of protesters who took to the streets on Friday was one of the largest. Demonstrators marched in at least 268 Syrian regions compared to 202 regions last week,” he said.

The head of the Syrian Observatory, Rami Abdel Rahman, spoke of 500,000 protesters in Hama.

Another activist said that “more than 400,000 marched” while a third said more than 200,000 people gathered in the city’s Assi Square, stretching for more than a kilometer, with security forces keeping out of sight.

There were similar scenes elsewhere across the country, including in Homs, another hotbed of protest and Syria’s third-largest city, where one activist said “more than 100,000 people” rallied as tanks were deployed.

Homs was the focus of a report released on Saturday by the New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch, which denounced a rising death toll there and security forces for “terrorizing people.”

Citing Syrian rights groups and witnesses, HRW said 21 people had been killed in a government crackdown in Homs since June 17.

“During the city’s ongoing protests, security forces have beaten protesters with clubs, vandalized private property and broken into homes where they suspected protesters had sought refuge,” HRW said.

“Security forces dressed in civilian clothes have detained protesters repeatedly, often traveling in taxis to approach and detain people,” it added.

“Syria’s authorities accuse protesters of being ‘armed gangs,’ but it is their security forces who terrorize people,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW.

More than 1,360 civilians have been killed in the crackdown against pro-democracy protests since mid-March, according to human rights groups, while thousands have been arrested.

The Syrian Observatory says 343 security force personnel have also died.
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