Thousands call for Assad's removal

Thousands demanded the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad yesterday at the funeral of eight protesters killed in the central Syrian city of Homs, in escalating unrest despite a promise to lift emergency law.

Activists said the people were killed on Sunday during protests over the death of a tribal leader in custody. Mr Assad, facing unprecedented demonstrations against his authoritarian Baath Party rule, said on Saturday that legislation to replace nearly 50 years of emergency law should be in place by next week.



Wissam Tarif, a rights activist in contact with people in Syria, said he had the names of 12 people killed in the city.



"From alleyway to alleyway, from house to house, we want to overthrow you, Bashar," the mourners chanted, according to a witness at the funeral.



YouTube footage showed thousands of people in a city square.



Assad, facing a month of demonstrations against his authoritarian Baath Party rule, said on Saturday that legislation to replace nearly half a century of emergency law should be in place by next week.



But his pledge did little to appease protesters calling for greater freedoms in Syria, or curb violence which human rights organisations say has killed at least 200 people.



"Homs is boiling. The security forces and the regime thugs have been provoking armed tribes for a month now," a rights activist told Reuters from the city.



Civilians who took to the streets "were shot at in cold blood," he said.



Further north in Jisr al-Shughour around 1,000 people yesterday called for "the overthrow of the regime", echoing chants of protesters who overthrew leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, at the funeral of a man they said was killed by security forces.



Assad says Syria is the target of a conspiracy and authorities blame the violence on armed gangs and infiltrators supplied with weapons from Lebanon and Iraq.



The unrest, which broke out a month ago in the southern city of Deraa, has spread across Syria and presented the gravest challenge yet to Assad, who assumed the presidency in 2000 when his father Hafez al-Assad died after 30 years in power.



Western countries have condemned the violence but shown no sign of taking action against Assad, a central player in Middle East politics who consolidated his father's anti-Israel alliance with Iran and supports Islamist groups Hamas and Hezbollah, while holding intermittent, indirect peace talks with Israel.

The unrest amounted to armed insurrection, the Interior Ministry said. "The course of the previous events... have revealed that (the events) are an armed insurrection by armed groups belonging to Salafist organisations, especially in the cities of Homs and Banias," it said in a statement.

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