BEIRUT, Lebanon and DAMASCUS, Syria — Nearly three months into the uprising against Syria's four-decade-old Assad dictatorship, protesters took to streets across the country in the largest numbers yet seen on Friday as details emerged of one of the deadliest single attacks yet on unarmed demonstrators.
An estimated 300,000 people took to the streets on Friday in dozens of protests in cities and the countryside across all four corners of Syria, according to activists and reporters.
Saturday Syria was marked by funerals of those killed Friday. The funeral marches became anti-Assad protests. One suspected Assad security agent was beaten to death by an angry mob in Hama.
Though the regime cut internet service in major Syrian cities throughout Friday in an attempt to prevent activists loading video footage, service was restored today and dozens of video clips of protests have since been uploaded to YouTube and Facebook.
In Syria’s east, in Deir Ezzour and nearby towns, protesters again burned the offices of the ruling Baath Party and tore down posters and statues of President Bashar al-Assad and his father, former President Hafez al-Assad.
“I can say now there are no posters and statues of the Assad family in Deir Ezzour. The protesters burned all the Baath Party branches,” said Fatah, 28, a pro-democracy activist from the city. In response, security forces shot and killed two children, aged 13 and 16, said activists.
The Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC), a youth activist network inside Syria, also reported that two children were killed during an attack on protesters in Daraa, the cradle of the uprising, which has been under a military siege for over a month.
Friday’s protests were dubbed “Freedom for Children Friday” in memory of the at least 73 children killed by security forces since the uprising began in mid-March.
The torture and killing in custody of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb, whose body was returned to his parents on May 24, has rallied anti-Assad protesters and portraits of the boy are carried on banners by Syrian protesters across the country.
Protests took place in four neighborhoods of Damascus, with security forces opening fire and killing one person in Berzeh, while in eight towns around the capital protesters came out in defiance of an ongoing security lock-down, which has seen thousands of troops and secret police deployed and checkpoints set up to restrict access roads in and out.
A large protest of between 50,000 and 100,000 people took place in the northern city of Maarat an-Numan where security forces Saturday opened fire on a large funeral procession for a protestor killed during Friday’s demonstration.
“They shot at us from the building of the local security branch and the post office,” said a resident who took part in the funeral.
“We were shouting against the regime and calling for democracy and freedom. We were shouting the Takbeer [God is greatest] and maybe for this reason they got angry and shot at us,” he said.
Protests also took place in Lattakia, Homs and Rastan, all of which have had the army and secret police deployed in an attempt to crush the uprising. For the first time, sizeable protests took place in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, which had been largely dormant.
The largest protests of Syria’s uprising so far will be remembered for the massacre in Hama.
Activists have confirmed the names of at least 67 people killed in the central city on Friday, with the number expected to rise to 80. Security forces opened fire with machine guns on a crowd of around 50,000 demonstrators calling for the downfall of the regime.
“We were carrying flowers with us to give to the security forces,” said Ali, a 24-year-old activist who took part in the protest. “Security didn’t warn us before they opened fire. They wanted to kill all of us, not just frighten us home.”
On a video published by the LCC today, a plain clothes secret policeman is seen firing a Kalashnikov assault rifle at unarmed demonstrators.
The injured are shown being rushed from the scene by other protesters, many with their faces covered to avoid being identified by the security forces.
A tire billows thick black smoke across Hama’s main street while protesters throw stones at a building believed to be the site where pro-regime thugs had taken refuge after being overwhelmed by the size of the crowd.
After the killings in Hama protestors carried an effigy of Assad hanging from a make-shift gallows.
“This is the trial of Bashar al-Assad,” says a voice on a video of the incident published by the Sham Syria News Network. “We don’t love you, leave us alone, you and your party,” the protesters chant. “This is our country and we don’t want Bashar al-Assad.”
Hama is a particularly sensitive city for the regime as in 1982 it was the site of the worst massacre in Syria’s modern history when Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, ordered a military assault to crush an uprising by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, killing between 10,000 and 30,000 people.
“They opened fire directly into the crowd of people,” said an eyewitnessto the Friday shootings. “The people didn’t flee because we thought that our big number would make them stop shooting. But they didn’t.”
Many of the wounded were taken to the private al-Hourani hospital where protesters surrounded the hospital to protect the injured inside from being arrested and taken away by the secret police, as has occurred in several different Syrian cities in a systematic attempt by the regime to prevent injured protestors receiving medical care.
“I spoke to two doctors from two different hospitals who said that they have been threatened by the secret police not to treat the wounded from yesterday’s protest,” said an activist in Hama.
At least 30 funerals took place in Hama today, with residents declaring a three-day period of mourning, with all businesses closed.
During one funeral, furious crowds beat to death a secret policeman after he was recognized walking among them, said two locals who said his body was hung from the gate of a local cemetery.
“Someone recognized him and started shouting, ‘This guy is secret service,’” said a local resident. “The guy apparently pulled his gun and the people attacked him.”
According to a witness, the crowd bundled the man to the ground, found his ID card from the military secret police and beat him to death, leaving his body hanging by its neck at the gate of the cemetery.
Syria’s secret police are widely loathed by the population and have been responsible for leading the killing of unarmed protesters, as well as detaining and torturing thousands.
“What the hell was he doing there?” asked a local resident. “People are in mourning and are so tense when the take their loved ones to the graveyard.”
By late Saturday afternoon, military helicopters were reported to have opened fire on the town of Jisr al-Shaghour, near Syria’s northwest border with Turkey, killing six, according to opposition activists, the first time the regime has used airpower against the popular uprising.
The latest killings took the death toll in Syria’s three-month uprising to 1,274, with thousands more injured and at least 12,000 imprisoned.
“The protests are getting bigger than ever and people have started to coordinate better,” said Rami Nakhle, an opposition spokesman. “Now the security forces have to disperse the same protest over and over again.”