Syrian forces kill 9 during attacks on towns

Syrian forces attacked several towns Sunday, killing at least nine people as protests continued against the embattled regime of President Bashar Assad, activists said.

Government troops and security forces stormed the central town of Rastan, using tanks and armored vehicles and shooting randomly, the activists said. At least four people were killed in the town of 80,000 and several injured, some critically, according to Wissam Tarif, executive director of the Beirut-based human rights group Insan.

Elsewhere in the same central Homs province, troops entered the towns of Teir Maaleh and Talbiseh on Sunday, with five deaths reported in the area, activists said. In Talbiseh, numerous snipers occupied rooftops as troops bombarded the town with heavy artillery, activists said.

All three towns have mounted large antigovernment protests in recent days. One name emerged as a battle cry Sunday for protesters across the country: Hamza Khatib.

The 13-year-old, who appears smiling shyly, apple-cheeked and clean cut, in a school-portrait style Facebook photo, was allegedly tortured and killed by Syrian security forces after he disappeared April 29 during an antigovernment protest in the southern Dara region, according to activists and video footage posted online. His nascent Facebook page had more than 39,500 followers Sunday and he had sparked a flurry of Twitter postings and blogs across the Arab world and internationally.


“I cannot stop crying for you Hamza, I cannot stop crying,” Ayham Tibi wrote on Facebook. “I see my son in you, I see the innocence in you, I see every child’s dream.”

Activists liken Hamza to Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit seller who set himself on fire late last year after being humiliated by police, or Khaled Said, a young Egyptian allegedly beaten to death by police last year. Both men became symbols of revolutionary struggle in their respective countries, emboldening protesters and motivating others to join their movements.

“Hamza Khatib has become the face of the revolution” in Syria, said a legal activist in Homs who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution by the government. “People who have never thought of taking to the streets are just too enraged now…. Hamza is mobilizing people because his torture would shake any human being to the core.”

He said Hamza became a symbol because of the brutality he was subjected to at the hands of Syrian security forces, according to relatives who received his body Wednesday. The boy was allegedly subjected to electroshocks and castrated, his neck broken.

Tarif said Hamza’s father was summoned by police for interrogation, and activists were still trying to determine Sunday whether he had been released. Hamza’s family could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Dr. Akram Shaar, chief of Syria’s medical examiners association, appeared on television to deny accusations that Hamza had been abused. Shaar said he supervised Hamza’s autopsy in Damascus, and although the boy’s body was partially decomposed, it showed no signs of torture.

His claims enraged protesters and bloggers.

“Shaar is the twin of Sebaay,” wrote the Egyptian blogger Zeinobia, a reference to Egypt’s former chief coroner Sebaay Ahmed Sebaay, who was recently forced to resign after signing off on reports that Khaled Said was not beaten to death.

Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, said Hamza is a fitting symbol for protests in Syria that, as in other countries this “Arab Spring,” have been youth-driven. “It reflects the demographics of the country and the fear they face,” he said.

A 10-year-old girl was among those killed Sunday in Homs province, where a school bus driver was also killed when the vehicle was shelled, leaving four children critically injured, activists said. Security forces surrounded the state hospital in Homs, arresting some of those wounded in the clashes and preventing others from receiving treatment, activists said.

The reports could not be independently verified because of the Syrian government’s media blackout.

Human rights groups say more than 1,000 people have been killed in Syria since antigovernment protests began in mid-March, at least 25 of them children.

Assad and his forces have so far remained determined to clamp down on the protests, which threaten his family’s four-decade rule. He now faces U.S. and European sanctions as well as an EU assets freeze and visa ban that also applies to nine other members of his regime.

Shaikh said Hamza’s death will probably motivate bystanders in Syria and international leaders to increase pressure on Assad to step down.

“The trajectory of the past four or five weeks has been to ratchet up pressure on the regime, and we have the makings of an international coalition which includes the U.S., France, a mixture of Western and Arab countries” that could force Assad from power, he said, adding that “this is going to be a long agony of transition.”

Times staff writer Hennessy-Fiske reported from Cairo. Hajjar is a news assistant in The Times’ Beirut bureau.