By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN (Reuters) – Security forces shot dead four demonstrators on Tuesday as people streamed out of mosques after prayers to mark the end of Ramadan and renewed protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, activists and residents said.
The victims, who included a 13-year-old boy, were killed in the towns of al-Hara and Inkhil in southern Deraa province.
Demonstrations broke out elsewhere across the country, notably in Damascus suburbs, the city of Homs, 165 km (100 miles to the north) and the northwestern province of Idlib, the sources said.
â€œThe people want the downfall of the president,â€ protesters shouted in the Damascus suburb of Harasta, where activists said dozens of soldiers defected at the weekend after refusing to shoot at the crowds.
In the adjacent Saqba suburb a crowd held their shoes up in the air — an insulting gesture in the Arab world — and chanted anti-Assad slogans.
According to one activist group, troops have killed at least 551 civilians during Ramadan, the holiest period in the Islamic calendar.
Five months into the street uprising against his rule, Assad, from Syriaâ€™s minority Alawite sect, is facing more frequent demonstrations. Protesters have been encouraged by the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, with whom Assad had close ties, and rising international pressure on the ruling hierarchy.
The Obama administration froze the U.S. assets of Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem and two other Syrian officials on Tuesday in response to Assadâ€™s increasingly bloody crackdown.
The Treasury Department also named Ali Abdul Karim Ali, Syriaâ€™s Ambassador to Lebanon, where Assad wields influence through the Shiâ€™ite Hezbollah guerrilla group, and his adviser Bouthaina Shaaban.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States had imposed the sanctions on the three because of the â€œrole that they play in propagating and advancing the reign of terror that Assad is exacting on their own people.â€
Moualem and Shaaban have appeared in the media defending military assaults on towns and cities, saying Syrian forces were pursuing â€œterrorists.â€ They are not part of Assadâ€™s decision-making inner circle, composed of his younger brother Maher, other family members and top security officials already on the U.S. sanctions list.
Opposition figures in Syria see international pressure as crucial to stripping Assad of legitimacy and in helping raise the momentum of peaceful protests.
Residents and activists are reporting increasing defections among Syrian troops, drawn mostly from the Sunni majority population but dominated by Alawite officers effectively under the command of Maher.
In the capital, YouTube footage showed soldiers from core units roaming the center in green public transport buses, their AK-47s hanging out from the doors, to prevent protests, which broke out nonetheless in Qaboun, Kfar Souseh, Rukn al-Din and Maydan districts, activists said.
In a report published on Tuesday, the Syrian Revolution Coordinating Union grassroots activistsâ€™ group said Assadâ€™s forces killed 551 people during Ramadan and that 130 others were killed on July 31, the eve of Ramadan, in a tank assault on the city of Hama, scene of a 1982 massacre by the military.
â€œThe report does not include the number of martyrs who were not identified by name nor… bodies that were abducted (by security forces) and not returned to their families,â€ it said.
Amnesty International said that deaths in Syrian prisons and police detention had soared in recent months as Assadâ€™s government tried to crush the protests.
The London-based human rights group said it had details of at least 88 people believed to have died in detention between April and mid-August. At least 52 of them had apparently suffered some form of torture that was likely to have contributed to their death.
Chibli Mallat, a professor of law at Harvard, and chairman of the Right to Nonviolence international group of public figures, said Syriaâ€™s death toll, although high, was still less than Libya, where the revolution turned into armed conflict and needed NATOâ€™s help.
â€œIt may be also the case in Syria today … But is it necessary to reach the point that arms are engaged?â€ Mallat said in an article published on Tuesday in Egyptâ€™s al-Ahram online.
â€œIs it not wiser, albeit perhaps more frustrating, to keep the revolution pure in the tenacity of its nonviolence, rather than lose the absolute moral superiority against violent rulers?â€ said Mallat, who is Lebanese.
The official state news agency said state television had aired an audio recording of two â€œterroristsâ€ who described themselves as activists.
It said the tape revealed â€œa full agenda of provocation and targeting police and army camps and terrorising peaceful citizens in the name of freedom and non-violence.â€
The Syrian National Human Rights Organization, headed by exiled dissident Ammar al-Qurabi, said pro-Assad forces, including a loyalist militia known as shabbiha, had killed at least 3,100 civilians since the uprising erupted in March, including 18 people on Monday alone.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay said this month that 2,200 people have been killed, with Assadâ€™s forces continuing â€œto employ excessive force, including heavy artillery, to quell peaceful demonstrations and regain control over the residents of various cities.â€
Syrian authorities blame â€œarmed terrorist groupsâ€ for the bloodshed and say they have killed 500 soldiers and police. They have also repeatedly denied that army defections have been taking place.
Foreign media were expelled after the uprising began in March, making verification of reports difficult.
(Additional reporting by Suleiman; al-Khalidi; Editing by Angus MacSwan and David Stamp)