Syria communications down, minister asked to form government

DAMASCUS, April 3, 2011 (AFP) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad asked former Agriculture minister Adel Safar to form a new government, the state-run news agency SANA reported Sunday, as communications networks failed and residents in Douma prepared to bury the first of their dead.

A handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) speaking with Qatari Premier and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabr al-Thani during a meeting in Damascus on April 2, 2011. AFP

Safar's appointment comes after Assad, who is facing an unprecedented domestic crisis, fired his cabinet in a bid to quell pro-democracy protests but dashed hopes he would lift almost 50 years of emergency rule in a rare address.

Cell phone and internet networks failed on Sunday in Syria "due to an overload", according to a customer representative, a day after authorities carried out a wave of arrests in protest cities.

Meanwhile, residents of Douma, a suburb north of Damascus still reeling from a fatal crackdown by security forces against pro-reform demonstrators, prepared to bury four of those killed.

"There will be a funeral in Douma at noon for four (of the dead )," a resident told AFP, adding that security forces had withheld some corpses from their families in an apparent bid to stop funerals from galvanizing fresh demonstrations.

On Friday, the Muslim day of rest, thousands of Syrians marched across the country after midday prayers, calling for reforms, disappointed by a presidential speech which failed to lift a state of emergency in place since 1963.

In a joint statement, eight human rights groups said 46 people were arrested in raids on the southern town of Daraa, one of thee main centres of more than two weeks of demonstrations, as well as Douma, north of Damascus and the industrial city of Homs.

"We condemn this extremely violent and unjustified way the Syrian security services dealt with peaceful rallies in Douma where police used excessive force against demonstrators," said the statement.

The rights groups reported that four people died and dozens were wounded in the crackdown. A human rights activist reported eight dead.

A witness told AFP security forces used live ammunition to disperse stone-throwing protesters after noon prayers.

The authorities denied the security forces were responsible for the deaths, blaming them on an "armed group" which opened fire from rooftops on both demonstrators and police.

They acknowledged an unspecified number of deaths and said dozens were wounded, some of them policemen.

State television charged that "some of the demonstrators had daubed their clothes with red dye to make foreign reporters believe that they had been injured".

Some 200 people demonstrated outside the courthouse in Daraa, a tribal town near the Jordan border, where security forces arrested eight people between a morning raid and a round-up after the protests, an activist told AFP.

Security forces carried out a series of raids in the area, another activist said, adding that architect Khaled al-Hassan, lawyer Hassan al-Aswad and teacher Issam Mahameed were among those detained.

Yusef Abu Rumiyeh, a member of parliament for Daraa, denounced security forces for opening fire on his constituents "without pity" and criticised Assad for not offering his condolences.

The security forces "opened fire on the citizens of Daraa, killing and injuring them and preventing the wounded from getting to hospital", said Rumiyeh, in a video uploaded on YouTube.

"The people of Hauran were waiting for President Assad to visit to offer his condolences. Had he done so, nothing that happened subsequently would have taken place."

In Homs, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented 17 arrests while authorities accused another "armed group" of firing on demonstrators in the industrial city and killing "one girl."

The rights group demanded the release of all prisoners of conscience and political prisoners, and called for measures to ensure the safety of peaceful protest.

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