Middle East

Syria unrest: Deraa protesters march at funeral

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Media captionAmateur footage purportedly shows recent violence in the city of Deraa

Syrian protesters have marched through the city of Deraa, chanting anti-government slogans at a funeral of several activists, witnesses say.

Some accounts claimed 20,000 people were out on the streets, but the number was impossible to verify.

At least 15 people are known to have died in clashes between security forces and protesters on Wednesday.

Officials are discussing the demands of the protesters, including possible reforms, sources have told the BBC.

The government is expected to make an announcement later, apparently in a bid to quell the unrest.

Officials are said to be discussing the state of emergency, in place since 1963, which gives the security forces sweeping powers.

Other issues apparently under discussion include changing to the judiciary to make it more independent, and freeing people arrested during the protests.

The demonstrators have demanded curbs on the power of the security forces, freedom for political prisoners, and a more inclusive political system.

Hours of violence

Meanwhile, activists have been using social-networking websites to call for nationwide protests after Friday prayers.

There are reports of mass arrests as the government of President Bashar al-Assad seeks to calm the situation.

Image caption Activists say dozens were killed

Analysts say the unrest is the biggest challenge Mr Assad has faced since he took over from his late father in 2000.

Reuters news agency quoted witnesses as saying mourners at Thursday's funeral chanted: "God, Syria, freedom. The blood of martyrs is not spilt in waste."

An activist in Deraa told AFP news agency the mourners had begun their procession from the Omari mosque - the focal point of protests, and scene of some of the worst violence.

There were no reports of renewed violence.

Wednesday's clashes erupted in the early hours when security forces tried to storm the mosque.

The authorities said in a statement they were targeting armed gangs that "stocked weapons and ammunition in the mosque and kidnapped children and used them as human shields".

Hundreds of people had gathered at the mosque to try to prevent security forces from getting in.

Reports say several people were killed in subsequent clashes, including a medical worker who was treating an injured protester.

Activists say more people were killed when security forces opened fire on crowds of mourners at the funeral of some of those killed at the mosque.

'Bullet holes'

The worst violence was said to have happened in the early evening, when crowds of protesters from surrounding villages tried to get into the city to demonstrate.

Witnesses and activists told reporters that security forces opened fire indiscriminately.

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Media captionThe BBC's Lina Sinjab is one of the few journalists to reach Deraa

It was not immediately clear how many people had died.

On Thursday, a hospital official in Deraa told Reuters they had received 25 bodies, adding: "They all had bullet holes."

Rights activists supplied the BBC with a list of 45 people they said had been killed in the unrest.

The BBC's Lina Sinjab in Damascus says the number of dead is difficult to verify because some of the protesters could have been taken to hospitals in other towns and cities.

Unrest broke out last Friday in Deraa when locals campaigned against the detention of 15 children, held apparently for daubing anti-government slogans on walls.

The authorities opened fire on the demonstrators, sparking more radical protests calling for political reform on the following days.

If confirmed, Wednesday's violence would be the worst since the unrest began.

The government has consistently denied the numbers of casualties claimed by witnesses and activists.

The authorities have claimed to be targeting "infiltrators" and "troublemakers" trying to spread fear among the population.

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