Protests in Syria turned violent Sunday night when security forces shot at demonstrators in two towns, killing at least 13 people and detaining many more, activists said.
The shootings came at the end of a day in which thousands of people took to the streets in towns and cities across Syria, calling for an end to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, a day after he vowed to lift emergency laws that have been in place for almost 50 years.
Nine people were killed in and around the central city of Homs, where security forces opened fire without warning in two areas, said Razan Zeitouneh, a human rights activist and lawyer who talked to witnesses there.
“The army suddenly started to shoot the people,” she said, adding that the victims included mourners at a funeral for a demonstrator killed the day before. “There was no use of fire or anything by the people. We talked to many eyewitnesses, and they were peaceful protests.”
In the coastal city of Latakia, four people were killed after protesters attempted to take over a main square, said Wissam Tarif, director of Insan, a human rights organization, including two who doctors said had been shot in the head and one who was beaten.
“First, security shot in the air,” said Tarif, whose organization used satellite phones to talk with witnesses after cellphone communication was shut down in some parts of Syria. “Then snipers took out people from a distance. Security used electrifying tools, sticks and beating people with rifles on the head.”
Hospitals in both cities were packed with injured people and families looking for missing loved ones, he said, adding that his organization had confirmed 86 arrests and expected the numbers of detainees to be in the hundreds.
Tarif said that security forces were also detaining wounded people in hospitals and that one doctor was arrested on suspicion of speaking to the media by phone. Independent confirmation of the events was impossible, as members of the foreign media have been expelled from Syria.
Demonstrations also took place in the cities of Aleppo, Daraa and Baniyas.
The violence, which occurred on the 65th anniversary of Syria’s independence from French rule, came as protesters nationwide chanted “Freedom, freedom” and “The people want to topple the regime.” Protesters say their demands have evolved from asking for reforms to demanding the president’s ouster.
The demonstrations occurred despite Assad’s promise Saturday that the emergency laws would be replaced by new statutes.
It was the most recent attempt by the president to defuse the month-long crisis. On Thursday, he appointed a new cabinet and released hundreds of people detained without charge.
But his announcement carried a veiled threat to protesters. Under the new laws, he said, “there will no longer be a need to organize demonstrations in Syria,” adding that the state would not “tolerate any act of sabotage.”
Activists have scoffed at the gestures, calling them ploys, and have vowed to continue protesting. Rights groups say that more than 200 have been killed since the crisis began.
Zeitouneh said the firing on the crowds in Homs may have been retribution for protesters setting fire Saturday to a large statue of Hafez al-Assad, the president’s father, who ruled the country for 30 years until his death in 2000.
“People are saying it’s like a revenge act,” she said.
In the southern town of As Suwayda, protests earlier in the day were met by government supporters in cars and on foot, armed with metal and wooden sticks and belts, a witness said.
“They started to beat everyone they saw in the way,” said Alaa, 24, a protester who did not want his last name used. “They called us anti-regime, spies. They started to swear at us and say dirty words. They said that we are not from As Suwayda, that we are not sons of the mountains, that we are not Arabs.”
On Sunday, the government announced the capture of a “huge” cache of weapons being smuggled in from Iraq and said earlier attempts at weapons smuggling also had been discovered. The government has accused protesters of being armed and supported by foreign agents; protesters have denied the charges.