Syria unrest: Deadly fresh protests erupt

Anti-government protesters in Deir al-Zour, 17 June 2011 Syrians have been regularly turning out to protest after Friday prayers

Fresh demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad's regime have erupted across Syria, with reports of at least 18 people killed by security forces.

The worst violence was reported in Homs, while activists said Aleppo had seen its first protester death.

Official media played down the size of the unrest, but said a number of policemen had been shot and one killed.

Earlier, the Syrian army moved into two northern towns as it sought to end months of anti-government protests.

Tanks, armoured personnel carriers and buses were used to secure Maarat al-Numan and Khan Sheikhoun, both on the road linking Damascus and Aleppo.

The EU is pressing for a new round of sanctions against Syria.

The UN says that at least 1,100 people have died as the government has cracked down on demonstrations that began in March.

Syrian rights groups put the overall death toll in Syria at 1,297 civilians and 340 security force members.

'Arresting the injured'

Syria has prevented foreign journalists, including those from the BBC, from entering the country, making it difficult to independently verify reports from there.

But activists and witnesses said security forces had opened fire on demonstrators in several locations on Friday.

Witnesses told the BBC that there was a huge demonstration around the al-Nour mosque in Homs, where at least eight people were later reported to have been killed.

Map

One resident of Homs said: "They are even arresting the wounded and taking them to the military hospital.

"Protesters are trying to help each other - there are rooms in houses where the injured are being treated, but not all of the injured can be accommodated."

Activists said there had also been deaths in Damascus, the eastern provincial capital of Deir al-Zour, and the province of Deraa in the south.

They reported that one person had been killed in Aleppo, Syria's second city and a major commercial hub. It would be the first protester death in Aleppo, which has yet to be fully caught up in the uprising.

Security forces were also reported to have opened fire on protesters in the coastal city of Baniyas, causing injuries.

In Deir al-Zour, witnesses and residents told Reuters news agency that two protesters were shot dead as they tried to rip down posters of the president.

Witnesses told the BBC that there had been protests in the towns of Amoud, Ras al-Ain, Qamishli, Hassakeh and in several districts of Damascus.

Activists dedicated Friday's protests to Saleh al-Ali, who fought against French colonial rule in the early 20th Century.

Some protesters reportedly chanted slogans against President Assad's cousin, Rami Makhlouf, who announced on Thursday that he would give up his extensive business interests and donate his profits to charity.

Syria's government has blamed the unrest on "armed gangs" and foreign meddling, and state TV reported on Friday that such groups had killed one policeman and wounded 20 in an attack.

Meanwhile in Lebanon, at least two people were killed in clashes between Sunni and Alawite Muslims following a demonstration against the Syrian regime. Syria's ruling elite is dominated by the country's Alawite minority.

'Climate of fear'

Reporting from Syria, the BBC's Matthew Price said people were fleeing their homes in fear for their lives. The video cannot be independently verified

President Assad is facing the gravest threat to his family's 40-year ruling dynasty, as unrest that first erupted in the south of the country has now engulfed the north - near the border with Turkey - and is threatening to spread eastwards towards its border with Iraq.

State television has shown pictures of troops advancing into Maarat al-Numan, which is some 40km (25 miles) south-east of Jisr al-Shughour, the town overrun by tanks and troops on Sunday.

It said the army had also moved into Khan Sheikhoun, just south of Maarat al-Numan, to prevent what it called "armed terrorist organisations" from cutting off the highway.

Officials said they were planning a "limited military operation" in Maarat al-Numan to restore security there.

But residents and witnesses have spoken of a climate of fear in the area, of attacks on surrounding villages and of summary killings and torture by the security forces.

At least 9,000 Syrian refugees have now fled across the border into Turkey, and Ankara says it will supply humanitarian aid to some 10,000 people who are stranded on the Syrian side of the border.

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