(London) - Syria's security forces used live ammunition against protesters in Daraa and the surrounding villages of Sanmein and Tafas on March 25 and 26, 2011, killing at least 26 and bringing the death toll in the Daraa governorate reported by Syrian human rights activists since March 18 to at least 61, Human Rights Watch said today. Clashes between security forces and protesters in the coastal city of Latakia on March 26 killed another 12, according to Syria's state news agency.
Human Rights Watch called on the government to hold to account those responsible for any unlawful shooting on demonstrators and urged concerned governments to back their condemnations of Syria's violent crackdown with concrete measures, such as ending all transfer of military or security assistance, as long as the abuses continue.
"Syria's authorities promise reform on TV but meet demonstrators with bullets in the streets," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The government should understand that these demonstrations won't end until it stops shooting at protesters and begins to change its repressive laws and practices."
Confrontations between protesters and security forces also took place in Latakia on March 26, leading the Syrian army to deploy in the city at night. A Syrian official told SANA, the Syrian state news agency, that 12 people were killed, including security forces and protesters. Human Rights Watch spoke to two residents in Latakia, but both were too afraid to provide any details of the events. Anti-government demonstrators in Latakia who spoke to television outlets accused the security forces of opening fire on them, while officials and pro-government protesters accused the anti-government protesters of having guns and shooting at police.
In Daraa on the morning of March 25, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered for a funeral procession for protesters killed the previous day. The protest had been peaceful in the morning, but security forces fired live ammunition at protesters after they tried to destroy a statue of former president Hafez al-Assad in the square facing the governor's residence, two witnesses told Human Rights Watch. Video footage posted by anonymous sources on YouTube showed the protesters attempting to pull down the statue as well as a billboard photo of President Bashar al-Asad in a neighboring square. The sound of gunfire could be heard in the background.
A Daraa resident told Human Rights Watch on March 26 that protests on March 25 had first been peaceful. When people in the crowd received information that security forces had shot and killed demonstrators in the nearby village of Sanamein, who were on their way to join the funeral procession in Daraa, they vented their anger by trying to destroy a statue of former president al-Asad, the father of the current president. The witness told Human Rights Watch: "The information about the killing of protesters who were coming to join us angered the crowd. And some people tried to destroy the statue of President Hafez al-Asad. At that point, security forces opened fire, and I ran away."
Another Daraa resident told Human Rights Watch that 14 people had died in the subsequent shootings in Daraa, but Human Rights Watch was able to obtain the names of only two dead protesters: Muhammad Ayshat and Tarek Abu Aysh.
A Sanamein resident told Human Rights Watch what happened in his village: "We were heading to Daraa to join the funeral when we reached security forces who were blocking our way. When we refused to stop, they started shooting at us." He said that the security forces killed 16 people in his village. A Syrian official told Agence France-Presse that 10 people were killed in clashes between protesters and security forces in Sanamein but gave no further details. Human Rights Watch obtained the names of two of those killed, Muhammad Zu`bi and Yaser Sarrouh.
Also on March 26, anti-government protesters set fire to the headquarters of the ruling Baath Party and a police station in Tafas, another village near Daraa, during the funeral of a demonstrator who had been killed on March 25, a Syrian activist told Human Rights Watch. The activist told Human Rights Watch that security forces had killed two protesters in an effort to disperse the crowd. Syria's government did not issue any comment on the events in Tafas.
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials allow law enforcement agents to use only that degree of force necessary and proportionate to protect people and property and to use intentional lethal force only when strictly unavoidable, to protect life. The Basic Principles require governments to ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force or firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense.
"Attacks on a statue do not justify shooting protesters dead," Whitson said. "It is time for President al-Asad to show leadership by reigning in his security forces, investigating those responsible for unlawful attacks on protesters, and holding them accountable in a court of law."
The government has arrested scores of people since large-scale demonstrations began on March 16. While it now has released some, others remain in detention and their whereabouts are unknown. Authorities immediately should disclose the names, whereabouts, and charges against anyone who may still be in custody in connection with recent events, Human Rights Watch said.
Officials from the United States, European Union, and UN have condemned violence against protesters and called on Syrian authorities to release those detained.
Concerned governments and the UN should back their statements with concrete action to stop the bloodshed, including an embargo on all arms and security equipment to Syria, targeted sanctions and travel bans against Syrian officials responsible for ongoing grave human rights abuses, and support for a comprehensive, independent, and speedy investigation into any crimes committed, Human Rights Watch said.
"It's important to denounce the violence but we need concrete measures that will convince the Syrian leadership to end the bloodshed," Whitson said.