Damascus: Syrian forces killed at least six people yesterday in an attack on a mosque in the southern city of Daraa, site of unprecedented protests challenging President Bashar Al Assad's Baathist rule, residents said.
Al Assad, a close ally of Iran, key player in neighbouring Lebanon and supporter of militant groups opposed to Israel, has dismissed rising demands for fundamental reform in Syria where his Baath Party has held a monopoly on power for 48 years.
Those killed included Ali Gassab Al Mahamid, a doctor from a prominent Daraa family who went to the Omari mosque in the city's old quarter to help victims of the attack, which occurred just after midnight, said the residents, declining to be named.
YouTube footage showed what purported to be the street in front of the mosque before the attack, with the sound of gunfire audible and a person inside the mosque grounds yelling: "Brother don't shoot. This country is big enough for me and you".
Before security forces attacked the mosque, the focal point of the Daraa protests, electricity was cut off and telephone services were severed. Cries of "Allah Akbar" erupted across neighbourhoods as the shooting began.
"Syrian authorities think they can kill non-violent democratic protesters with impunity," exiled Syrian rights defender Haitham Al Manna told BBC television from Paris.
An official Syrian statement said: "Outside parties are transmitting lies about the situation in Daraa", blaming what it described as armed gangs for the violence. The statement said doctor Mahamid, who was killed while he was in an ambulance that had arrived at the scene to rescue the injured, was "assaulted by an armed gang".
"Security forces confronted the armed gang near the Omari mosque, shooting several of its members and arresting others. A member of the security forces was killed," the statement said.
It said the armed gang "stocked weapons and ammunition in the mosque and kidnapped children and used them as human shields".
State television showed guns, grenades and ammunition it said were found in the mosque, but activists said the protest was peaceful and there had been no weapons.
The attack brought to 10 the number of civilians killed by Syrian forces during six days of demonstrations for political freedom and an end to corruption in the country of 20 million.
The Baath Party has banned opposition and enforced emergency laws since 1963. But the wave of Arab unrest which has toppled leaders in Tunisia and Egypt now presents Al Assad with the biggest challenge to his rule since he succeeded his father Hafeez Al Assad, who ruled Syria for 30 years until his death in 2000.
"The phone networks have been disrupted but we got through to people near the mosque on Jordanian mobile phone lines," said one resident. Daraa is on the border with Jordan.
A political activist, who also declined to be identified, said: "Electricity and communications have been cut off. We are not being able to contact residents in the old quarter."
The attack occurred a day after the UN Office for Human Rights said the authorities "need to put an immediate halt to the excessive use of force against peaceful protesters, especially the use of live ammunition".
The protesters, who erected tents in the mosque's grounds, said earlier they were going to remain at the site until their demands were met. The mosque preacher, Ahmad Siasneh, told Arabiya television on Tuesday that the protest was peaceful.
Protesters also gathered in the nearby town of Nawa.
Syrian state television showed what it said were arms inside a mosque in the southern town of Daraa where government forces were accused of killing five protesters earlier yesterday.
The footage was of a stockpile of weapons including pistols, shotguns, grenades and ammunition it said was inside Omari mosque, the focal point of week-old demonstrations to demand the end of President Bashar Al Assad's regime.