Syrian security forces open fire on rally

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Syrian security forces fired tear gas and live ammunition at anti-government protesters who took over a main square in the country's third-largest city today, witnesses and activists said.

An eyewitness said police used loudspeakers to urge protesters camped out in Clock Square in the centre of the city of Homs to evacuate the area.

Shortly afterwards, security forces moved in, firing first tear gas, then live ammunition at the protesters who had taken mattresses, food and water to the site in an Egypt-style sit-in, vowing to stay until President Bashar Assad is ousted.

"They shot at everything, there was smoke everywhere," an activist in Homs said by telephone. "I saw people on the ground, some shot in their feet, some in the stomach."

Other protesters confirmed his account, and said the exact number of casualties was not clear.

At least 200 people have been killed in the past month in Syria after security forces launched a deadly crackdown on a growing protest movement, human rights groups say.

The protesters have also become bolder. More than 5,000 anti-government demonstrators took over the square in Homs yesterday, vowing to stay until Mr Assad is removed.

The government, however, has blamed the weeks of anti-government unrest in the country on ultra-conservative Muslims seeking to establish a fundamentalist state and terrorise the people.

The Egypt-style stand-off in Homs followed funeral processions by more than 10,000 mourners for some of those killed in clashes on Sunday which a rights group said left at least 12 people dead.

Many Syrians also say pro-government thugs - known as Shabiha - have terrorised neighbourhoods with tactics such as opening fire into the air.

The government has in the past blamed "armed gangs" seeking to stir up unrest for many of the killings, such as the ones who fatally shot seven people, including three army officers, on Sunday in Homs.

Yesterday, the Interior Ministry identified the gangs as "armed Salafi groups," referring to an ultra-conservative form of Islam which has its roots in Saudi Arabia and can be found all over the region.

The statement carried by the state news agency said they were seeking to establish "emirates" and were "abusing the freedoms and reforms launched in the comprehensive program with a timetable by President Bashar Assad".