Fifteen people were killed by Syrian security forces, witnesses said, as a bloody campaign to end political protests continued Wednesday in the southern city of Dara.
The deadliest day in the weeklong unrest began at 2 a.m. when hundreds of government security agents raided the Omari mosque near the center of the Roman-era city, the witnesses said. They said anti-government demonstrators had sought refuge there and that a makeshift clinic was tending to those wounded in previous clashes. Most of those slain were protesters, the witnesses said.
Despite the crackdown, supporters of the protests from the nearby villages of Inkhil, Jasim, Khirbat al Ghazalah and Harrah attempted to join them, but security forces used live ammunition against them.
By nightfall, Dara was sealed by the government forces, with no entry or exit allowed. Funerals for the dead were banned, and cellphone service was cut, according to Ammar Qurabi, chief of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria.
A second human rights activist quoted a witness as saying "the conditions are hellish" in Dara. "There are hundreds of wounded and injured in the streets," he said, sobbing. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of safety concerns.
State television acknowledged bloodshed but said security forces intervened only after armed groups killed a doctor, paramedic and ambulance driver. The reports, which did not include a death toll, denied that government forces entered the mosque.
The network also broadcast interviews with local officials, who blamed the unrest on terrorists manipulated by Israel and its intelligence service Mossad.
The protests in Dara erupted last week with residents marching in the streets to demand the release of about 20 political detainees. Many of the marchers were the parents of teenagers who were detained after spraying anti-government graffiti on walls, witnesses said.
But the government refused to release them, and the demands soon swelled to include an end to the secret police organization, which is headed in Dara by President Bashar Assad's cousin.
Opposition groups have been banned in Syria since the Baath Party took power in a 1963 coup. The party headquarters in Dara was set ablaze Sunday, witnesses said.
The unrest sweeping the Arab world arrived late in Syria, but it has since grown to become the most significant challenge during Assad's 11-year rule.
The government fired the governor of Dara, but the president has personally remained aloof during the unrest and has declined to comment directly on the violence. The protesters have stopped short of pushing for Assad's ouster.
Like other Middle Eastern countries embroiled in unrest in recent weeks, Syria suffers from high-level corruption and cronyism and has security forces with unlimited powers to detain dissidents.
Times staff writer Therolf reported from Cairo and special correspondent Lutz from Beirut.