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Shootings, arrests follow Hama protest

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, July 6 2011 - Syrian security forces responded to a large peaceful protest on July 1, 2011, in Syria's central city of Hama with a series of deadly raids, killing at least 16 people in the last 48 hours, Human Rights Watch said today. Security forces and pro-government armed groups, known locally as shabiha, raided homes, opening fire several times, and set up checkpoints encircling Hama, Syria's fourth-largest city.

"Hama is the latest city to fall victim to President Bashar al-Asad's security forces despite his promises that his government would tolerate peaceful protests," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Security forces have responded to protests with the brutality that's become familiar over the past several months."

Security forces had been largely absent from Hama, a city of 800,000, since June 3, when they opened fire on anti-government protesters, killing at least 60 people, according to media reports. In the following weeks, Hama residents took to the streets for regular protests that participants and media reports consistently reported as peaceful.

The marches culminated in a massive demonstration in al-Assi square on July 1, which drew tens of thousands of protesters - hundreds of thousands by some estimates. Syrian activists hailed it as the largest protest in Syria since the uprising began in mid-March. The protest was peaceful and unimpeded by government forces, according to witnesses, media reports, and videos reviewed by Human Rights Watch.

The next day, however, President al-Asad fired the governor of Hama, Ahmad Khaled Abdel Aziz, and security forces began a campaign of arrests, local residents and human rights activists told Human Rights Watch. A human rights lawyer, Razan Zeitouneh, told Human Rights Watch that security forces entered the outskirts of the city on July 2 and began arresting people, prompting residents to set tires on fire to prevent security forces from entering their streets. One resident described his neighborhood's response:

We had a system prepared for when the security forces came to arrest people. When we saw them coming, we would bang pots and pans to alert everyone else so the young men in the neighborhood could leave their homes and escape. After a few hours, security forces caught on to the system, so they started throwing teargas and stun grenades so people would be too scared to leave their homes and run away. Security forces then arrest people in bulk and load them into big cars; we don't know where they're taking them. They're targeting men between 10 and 45 years old.

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