Syria to bury dead as activists vow more protests

DAMASCUS (AFP) – Syrians prepared on Saturday to bury scores of people killed in a "day of rage" against the regime, with activists vowing a week of new protests as the United States and Europe imposed sanctions on Damascus.

At least 62 people were killed in clashes on Friday when tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets, activists said, while authorities said nine members of the security forces were killed by "terrorist groups".

Pro-democracy protests were held against President Bashar al-Assad's regime in most cities and major towns after Muslim weekly prayers, as on past Fridays for a month, witnesses said.

The call for mass demonstrations was issued on a Facebook page, The Syrian Revolution 2011, a driving force of the protests in which demonstrators inspired by uprisings across the Arab world are seeking greater freedoms.

On Saturday the group announced on its main page that funerals "for the martyrs" will be held at 4:30 (1330 GMT) in all Syrian governorates, and also gave a schedule of protests for the days ahead.

"Your blood has paved the way for our freedom... And we vow that your blood will not have been spilled in vain. The martyrs are eternal, but the criminals will end up in the dustbins of history after being judged and punished by the people," it said.

The Facebook militants pledged new countrywide protests from Sunday at the start of what they called "the week of breaking the siege."

Demonstrations would take place on Sunday in the southern protest hub town of Daraa, which has been besieged by security forces since Monday along with the Damascus suburb of Douma.

Activists also called for rallies on Monday in Damascus, Tuesday in the northern towns of Banias and Jableh, Wednesday in Homs, Talbisseh and in Tall Kalakh on the border with Lebanon, and night vigils on Thursday.

Friday's deadly "day of rage" protests gripped many Syrian cities and towns, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP in Nicosia, with 33 people reported killed in Daraa alone.

The Committee of the Martyrs of the 15 March Revolution gave a slightly lower overall death toll for Friday, saying 56 people were killed, including 33 in Daraa and 25 in the central province of Homs.

The group said in a statement after the bloodshed that a total of 582 people have been killed since protests erupted on March 15 by security forces firing live rounds and tear gas.

The military said five soldiers were killed and two captured by "armed terrorists" in the Daraa region of southern Syria, while three soldiers were killed when gunmen tried to cut off the highway linking Homs to Hama.

A policeman in Daraa was also among the dead, the military said, adding that dozens of assailants were killed and wounded and 156 arrested.

As the violence raged, Washington blocked the assets of the president's brother Maher al-Assad, who commands Syria's feared Fourth Armoured Division, and of several other top officials and its intelligence services.

"The United States strongly condemns the Syrian government's continued use of violence and intimidation against the Syrian people," the White House said in a statement on Friday.

EU ambassadors in Brussels launched preparations for an embargo on the sale of weapons and equipment that might be used for internal repression and decided to put on the brakes on trade deals with Syria.

The 27-nation bloc will also "urgently consider further appropriate and targeted measures with the aim of achieving an immediate change of policy by the Syrian leadership", said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

In Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council endorsed a US call for an investigative mission on the bloodshed as it voted in favour of a resolution condemning the crackdown.

But Assad's embattled regime reiterated its running ban on demonstrations, despite lifting a decades-old law barring them earlier this month, as the Muslim Brotherhood accused it of "genocide."

Information Minister Adnan Mahmud told AFP the crackdown would continue, saying the "authorities are determined to restore security, stability and peace to the citizens."

The interior ministry urged Syrians not to join the protests and warned that unauthorised rallies would not be tolerated.

Friday's "day of rage" also rocked the coastal city of Banias, where about 10,000 turned out to shout "liberty, solidarity with Daraa" and "down with the regime," activists said.

Some 15,000 people also protested in the majority Kurdish city of Qamishli and neighbouring towns.

In Daraa itself, security forces opened fire as "thousands of people" from neighbouring towns tried to "bring aid and food" to the city, besieged by the army since Monday, an activist said.

Water and power have been cut in Daraa as the situation worsened after between 3,000 and 5,000 troops backed by tanks stormed the town.

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