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Deaths of three protesters raise death toll in Homs

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, 2 July 2011 - Government security forces and their allies have killed at least 21 people in Homs since June 17, 2011, as they crack down on Syria's third-largest city, Human Rights Watch said today. Security forces and pro-government armed groups, known locally as shabeeha, shot and killed at least three protesters on July 1, witnesses and local human rights groups told Human Rights Watch.

During the city's ongoing protests, security forces have beaten protesters with clubs, vandalized private property, and broken into homes where they suspected protesters had sought refuge. Security forces dressed in civilian clothes have detained protesters repeatedly, often travelling in taxis to approach and detain people.

"President Bashar al-Asad's promises of new laws allowing more political participation ring hollow when security forces are still above the most basic laws," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

The Syrian government should immediately halt the excessive use of force by security forces and free everyone detained for exercising their rights to free expression and association, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch spoke to seven witnesses present during the security forces' most recent crackdown in Homs, including a doctor at al-Barr hospital who treated some of the wounded. Syria's authorities restrict access to the country to human rights groups, forcing Human Rights Watch to collect information by phone or by speaking to Syrian refugees who cross into neighboring countries.

A witness described the death of Diya' al-Najjar on July 1, when security forces opened fire on protesters gathered in al-Qarabis neighborhood. "I saw Diya' al-Najjar shot in the head by a sniper right in front of me," the witness said. "The sniper was in a Land Cruiser car four or five meters away from protesters."

Al-Najjar's body was taken to al-Barr hospital in Homs, where a doctor confirmed to Human Rights Watch that he died from a bullet to the head. According to the doctor, 10 protesters wounded by bullets had arrived at his hospital by 6 p.m. on July 1.

Local activists reported that two other protesters, Waleed al-Sayyed and Nader Sa'id, died in the neighborhood of Bab al-Sba' on the same day.

Security forces and pro-government armed groups also shot and killed protesters on June 17, 20, 21, and 24, killing at least 18 people, witnesses and local rights groups told Human Rights Watch.

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