“They (the youths) came into Deraa from the north entrance. Bodies fell in the streets. We do not know how many died,” one witness said.
“You didn’t know where the bullets were coming from. No one could carry away any of the fallen,” another resident said.
“Peaceful, peaceful,” the loudspeakers echoed — a cry taken up by protesters across the Arab world to emphasise the peaceful nature of their demonstrations against entrenched and undemocratic rulers and corruption, and demands for freedom.
Another witness saw 20 army trucks carrying soldiers heading to the city.
Deraa, on the Jordanian border, has long been a stronghold of the ruling Baath Party. But in recent days it has become a focus of unprecedented protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
The shooting began just after midnight when security forces attacked protesters in the vicinity of the Omari mosque in the city’s old quarter, the focal point of the Deraa protests, residents said.
Electricity was cut off and telephone services were severed. Cries of “Allahu Akbar (God is greatest)” erupted in one quarter after another as the shooting began.
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.”
The United Nations, France and the United States condemned the violence. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for a “transparent investigation” into the killings and for those responsible to be held accountable.
Those killed included Ali Ghassab al-Mahamid, a doctor from a prominent Deraa family who went to the Omari mosque to help victims of the attack.
An official Syrian statement said: “Outside parties are transmitting lies about the situation in Deraa,” blaming what it described as armed gangs for the violence.
The statement said doctor Mahamid, killed in an ambulance that had arrived at the scene to rescue the injured, was “assaulted by an armed gang.”
It said the armed gang “stocked weapons and ammunition in the mosque and kidnapped children and used them as human shields.”
An official statement said later that Assad had sacked Deraa governor Faisal Kalthoum.
But a main demand of the protesters is an end to what they term as repression by the secret police, headed in Deraa province by a cousin of Assad.