Rights group: Syrian troops kill 8 near Damascus

July 27, 2011 - 7:14 AM
Mideast Lebanon Syria

Syrian protesters carry pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad and national flags, shout pro-government slogans in front of the Syrian embassy in Beirut, Sunday, July 24, 2011. Attached on the car are pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, and Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, left. Nearly 2,000 supporters of Assad gathered outside the Syrian embassy in Beirut carrying a giant Syrian flag. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops opened fire Wednesday on scores of people in a Damascus suburb, killing at least eight people who were trying to halt the soldiers' advance by throwing stones and burning tires, activists said.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the residents of the Kanaker suburb were trying to set up blockades around the area to stop several tanks and a bulldozer that were heading in.

The group said the raid wounded a number of people who were being treated in mosques that residents had turned into makeshift hospitals. It said the raid occurred after electricity and telephones were cut off in the area.

The Observatory cited its wide network of witnesses on the ground in Syria. The government has banned most foreign media and restricted coverage, making it difficult to independently confirm witness accounts.

Ammar Qurabi, who heads the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, put the death toll higher, at 11.

The violence was the latest turn in the Syrian uprising against President Bashar Assad, which has lasted for nearly five months despite a brutal government crackdown on dissent.

Activists say more than 1,600 people have been killed, most of them unarmed protesters.

Although Assad's regime blames the unrest on terrorists and foreign extremists — not true reform-seekers — the president has acknowledged the need for reforms.

Late Tuesday, the Cabinet endorsed draft legislation that would enable newly formed political parties to run for parliament and local councils, a human rights group said.

The ruling Baath party, which calls for "unity, freedom and socialism," has held a monopoly over political life in Syria for decades. On Monday, the government endorsed a draft law that it says will allow the formation of political parties alongside the Baath party — something that had been a key demand of the protest movement.

Still, the promises are not likely to appease protesters. Assad, who inherited power in 2000 after the death of his father, President Hafez Assad, has made a series of overtures but the protests have grown larger.

Although the uprising began in mid-March with calls for reform, the steadily climbing death toll and slow pace of reform has enraged the protest movement. Now, many of them say they won't accept anything short of Assad's ouster.

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Bassem Mroue can be reached on http://twitter.com/bmroue