AMMAN (Reuters) - At least 25 people were killed in Syria on Thursday, including 14 civilians shot in a military crackdown on protesters calling for President Bashar al-Assad to go, and five soldiers killed in ambushes, activists said.
Thousands marched at funerals for 24 civilians killed by pro-Assad forces the day before, said activists, including eight in Damascus in one of the bloodiest attacks on demonstrations in the capital since the start of the seven-month uprising.
Rallies demanding Assad’s removal continued across the country.
“We are going to heaven, martyrs in the millions,” sang a crowd at a rally in the town of Helfaya near Hama, according to a YouTube video. The song has become a popular chant in other Arab countries witnessing “Arab Spring” revolts.
Thursday’s death toll included 14 civilians shot by loyalist forces in the city of Homs, 140 km (90 miles) north of Damascus, where troops have been trying to crush protests and a nascent armed insurgency, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Five soldiers were killed in ambushes near Maarat al-Numaan, a town 70 km south of Aleppo, and in the country’s tribal desert east, said the British-based group, headed by dissident Rami Abdelrahman.
The United Nations says 3,500 people have been killed in Assad’s crackdown. Authorities blame armed groups for the violence, saying more than 1,100 soldiers and police have been killed.
Syria has barred most foreign media, making it difficult to verify accounts from activists and officials.
An activist in the eastern Damascus suburb of Harasta, who gave his name as Assem, said three defectors were killed after they abandoned military units which fired live ammunition at a demonstration of 1,500-2,000 people in the al-Zar neighbourhood.
“Security police could not put down the demonstration. The eight soldiers defected when Republican Guards and the Fourth Armoured Division were sent in,” he said.
A YouTube video distributed by other activists purportedly showed several soldiers in Harasta wearing helmets and ammunition vests running for cover behind a vegetable stall amid the crackle of automatic gun fire.
In Homs, activists said the number of tanks in the city had increased and new roadblocks were set up, especially around Bayada and Bab Sbaa, districts that have seen regular protests against Assad.
Authorities said on Wednesday that life had returned to normal in the city after it was cleansed of “terrorists” who have been attacking civilians and troops.
“Arrests are non-stop. If the army spots any group of youths anywhere they arrest them,” he said.
Another activist in Maarat al-Numaan said a main roadblock 3 kms south of the town came under attack by defectors and tank deployment had increased in and around the city, especially in the Wadi al-Deif area, a main staging ground.
A 15-year-old boy was killed by army fire in the town of Khan Sheikhoun after fighting broke out between the Free Syrian Army, the best organised defectors force, and Assad’s soldiers, local activists said.
The official news agency said four soldiers were injured by a roadside bomb planted by “armed terrorist groups” on the main northern highway near Khan Sheikhoun.
It also said two boys were killed in Moualaqa village in the northwestern province of Idlib when they inadvertently set off explosives at an abandoned house that was being used by “armed terrorist groups” to make bombs and “attack roadblocks and sabotage public property.”
Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom; Editing by Sophie Hares