Bloodiest day in Syrian uprising as Assad troops kill 'at least 75'

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Syrian security forces shot and killed 88 people yesterday on the bloodiest day so far of weeks of mounting protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

Protesters flooded on to the streets across the country after Friday prayers to demand the overthrow of the regime in a clear sign that concessions by the leadership to quell the anger of the people had failed.

Witnesses said that the streets were cleared by security forces using teargas, water cannons and bullets after protesters ignored warnings that further displays of unrest would not be tolerated. "Bullets started flying over our heads like heavy rain," said one witness in Izra' in the southern province, where the uprising began.

The Local Coordination Committees of the protests counted 88 people, classified by region, the group said were killed.

In response to the high death toll, US President Barack Obama called on the Syrian government to stop using "outrageous" violence against demonstrators and accused President Assad of seeking help from Iran.

"Instead of listening to their own people, President Assad is blaming outsiders while seeking Iranian assistance in repressing Syria's citizens through the same brutal tactics that have been used by his Iranian allies," Obama said in a statement.

The protests came a day after President Assad lifted a 48-year state of emergency, one of the key demands of the protesters, which gave the regime wide powers. The continued protests reflected the hardening of demands which initially focused on reforms and greater freedoms.

Before Friday's violence rights groups had said more than 220 people had been killed since unrest broke out on 18 March in the southern city of Deraa. After prayers finished in Deraa yesterday, several thousand protesters gathered chanting anti-Assad slogans. "The Syrian people will not be subjugated. Go away doctor (Assad). We will trample on you and your slaughterous regime," they shouted.

The protest movement has been the gravest challenge to the autocratic regime led by President Assad, who inherited power from his father 11 years ago. The regime last night threw a tight military cordon around Damascus, one of the few cities that has so far avoided major unrest. Scores of soldiers manned checkpoints on one of the main roads leading south out of the city.

Even before Friday prayers, soldiers stopped cars and buses driving into the capital and checked drivers and passengers. Further out in Moadamiyah, a small town about six miles south of Damascus, a huge ring of troops encircled the town. Soldiers took positions on rooftops and outside mosques, while others peered from behind barricades of sandbags and giant tyres. Security forces later opened fire, according to rights groups and witnesses.

"They have started shooting demonstrators," said one protester in Moadamiyah who did not want to be named.

Haitham Maleh, a human rights lawyer based in Damascus, said: "The situation is becoming bigger every day. It will get bigger until the regime is finished." Mr Maleh said the army set up checkpoints on other roads out of the capital, including near the north eastern suburbs of Harasta and Duma. At least 10 people were shot dead by security forces in Duma, said Mr Maleh, while a number of other protesters were arrested in Harasta.

He also reported that the security services had taken over a stadium in the centre of Damascus, and brought in hundreds of armed men in anticipation of any trouble.

Yesterday in Jdeideh Artooz, a small town of a few thousand people about 10 miles south of Damascus, a group of young men told The Independent why they were supporting the anti-government protest movement. "The numbers of people demonstrating around Syria are increasing," said one, a young man in his 20s. "So it has nothing to do with the emergency law. I want to change the government and the President. If better people can come to power then our lives are going to be better."

Another young man said he had protested for the first time yesterday in his town. "I have seen people getting killed just because they are asking for freedom," he said. "Day by day the anti-government movement is increasing, and it is increasing because of the way the government is killing people."

The authorities have blamed armed groups, infiltrators and Sunni Muslim militant organisations for provoking violence at demonstrations by firing on civilians and security forces.