AMMAN (Reuters) - Security forces killed more than 60 people across Syria on Friday during demonstrations demanding the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad, and the United States imposed new sanctions on key figures.
A medical source told Reuters soldiers in Deraa killed 19 people when they fired on thousands of protesters descending from nearby villages in a show of solidarity with the southern city where Syria’s uprising broke out six weeks ago.
Syrian human rights group Sawasiah said it had the names of a total of 62 people killed during protests in Deraa, Rustun, Latakia, Homs and the town of Qadam, near Damascus. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights gave a similar death toll.
Friday’s bloodshed occurred as demonstrators across the country again defied heavy military deployments, mass arrests and a ruthless crackdown on the biggest popular challenge to 48 years of authoritarian Baath Party rule.
U.S. President Barack Obama imposed new sanctions against Syrian figures, including a brother of Assad in charge of troops in Deraa, the first diplomatic reprisal for Syria’s violent crackdown.
Obama signed an executive order imposing sanctions on the intelligence agency, Assad’s cousin Atif Najib and his brother Maher, who commands the army division which stormed into Deraa on Monday.
Shortly after Obama’s move, European Union diplomats said they had reached preliminary agreement to impose an arms embargo on Syria and would consider other restrictive measures.
Obama’s sanctions, which include asset freezes and bans on U.S. business dealings, build on U.S. measures against Syria in place since 2004, but they may have little impact since Assad’s inner circle are thought to hold few U.S. assets.
One official said the White House was “not ready” to call on Assad to step down because Obama and his aides “do not want to get out in front of the Syrian people.”
But thousands of Syrians took to the streets across the country after Friday prayers demanding his removal and pledging support for the residents of Deraa.
“The people want the overthrow of the regime!” demonstrators chanted in many protests, witnesses said.
More demonstrations flared in the central cities of Homs and Hama, Banias on the Mediterranean coast, Qamishly in eastern Syria and Harasta, a Damascus suburb.
Damascus saw the biggest protest in the capital so far, with a crowd swelling to 10,000 as it marched towards the main Ummayad Square before being dispersed by security forces firing tear gas, rights campaigners said.
Syrian rights group Sawasiah said this week at least 500 civilians had been killed since the unrest broke out six weeks ago. Authorities dispute that, saying 78 security forces and 70 civilians died in violence they blame on armed groups.
State news agency SANA blamed “armed terrorist groups” for killing eight soldiers near Deraa. It said groups had opened fire on the homes of soldiers in two towns near Deraa and were repelled by guards. SANA said security forces detained 156 members of the group and confiscated 50 motorbikes.
But a witness in Deraa said Syrian forces fired live rounds at thousands of villagers who descended on the besieged city.
“They shot at people at the western gate of Deraa in the Yadoda area, almost three km (two miles) from the centre of the city,” he said.
A rights campaigner in Deraa said on Friday makeshift morgues in the city contained the bodies of 85 people he said had been killed since the army stormed the city, close to Syria’s southern border with Jordan, on Monday.
Assad’s violent repression has brought growing condemnation from Western countries which for several years had sought to engage Damascus and loosen its close anti-Israel alliances with Iran and the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas.
The top United Nations human rights body condemned Syria for using deadly force against peaceful protesters and launched an investigation into killings and other alleged crimes.
A U.S. official said Friday’s sanctions were meant to show that no member of the Syrian leadership was immune from being held accountable. “Bashar is very much on our radar and if this continues could be soon to follow,” the official said.
The new sanctions also target the General Intelligence Directorate and its director, Ali Mamluk. The spy agency is accused by U.S. officials of repressing dissent and of involvement in the killing of protesters in Deraa.
The fifth target is Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — Qods Force. A source familiar with the new sanctions said the force is accused by the Obama administration of being the conduit for support Iran has provided to Syrian authorities in their crackdown on protesters. Syria has denied Iran has played any role in confronting the protests.
Security forces shot dead 120 protesters on Friday April 22, according to a Syrian rights group, in the biggest protests Syria has seen since the uprising ignited in Deraa on March 18.
Three days later an army division under the control of Assad brother’s Maher stormed into Deraa. That echoed their father’s 1982 attack on Hama to crush an armed revolt led by the Muslim Brotherhood, killing up to 30,000 people.
In a sign of rare dissent within ruling circles, 200 members of the Baath Party resigned on Wednesday in protest at the bloody crackdown.
Writing by Dominic Evans; Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Beirut, Mark Hosenball and Matt Spetalnick in Washington and Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; Editing by Jon Boyle