By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syrian forces killed at least six people on Wednesday in an attack on a mosque in the southern city of Deraa, site of unprecedented protests challenging President Bashar al-Assad's Baathist rule, residents said.
Assad, a close ally of Iran, a key player in neighboring 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 Ghassab al-Mahamid, a doctor from a prominent Deraa 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 Deraa protests, electricity was cut off and telephone services were severed. Cries of "Allah Akbar (God is the greatest)" erupted across neighborhoods 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 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".
"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 Assad with the biggest challenge to his rule since he succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for 30 years until his death in 2000.
France, which has been increasing its condemnation of the violence in Syria, urged Damascus to carry out political reforms without delay and respect its commitment to human rights.
It also called for an investigation into the recent deaths in Deraa, the release of those detained in demonstrations and said "excessive force" had to stop.
"The phone networks have been disrupted but we got through to people near the mosque on Jordanian mobile phone lines," said one resident. Deraa 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 able to contact residents in the old quarter."
Only a day earlier, the U.N. 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.
On Tuesday, Vice President Farouq al-Shara said Assad was committed to "continue the path of reform and modernization in Syria", Lebanon's al-Manar television reported.
A main demand of the protesters is an end to what they term repression by the secret police, headed in Deraa province by a cousin of Assad.
Authorities arrested a leading campaigner who had supported the protesters, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Tuesday. It said Loay Hussein, a political prisoner from 1984 to 1991, was taken from his home near Damascus.
In Damascus, authorities released six female protesters on Wednesday who took part in a silent demonstration last week supporting the release of political prisoners, lawyers said.
Since succeeding his father, Assad has lifted some bans on private enterprise but ignored calls to end emergency law, curb a pervasive security apparatus, develop rule of law and freedom of expression, free political prisoners and reveal the fate of tens of thousands of dissidents who disappeared in the 1980s.
Assad has emerged in the last four years from Western isolation imposed over Syria's role in Iraq and Lebanon, where it stationed troops for nearly three decades, and its backing for mostly Palestinian militant groups.
Assad strengthened Syria's ties with Shi'ite Iran as he sought to improve relations with the United States and strike a peace deal with Israel to regain the occupied Golan Heights, lost in the 1967 Middle East war.
Limited economic liberalization in the last decade has been marked by the rise of Rami Makhlouf, another cousin of Assad, as a business tycoon controlling key companies.
(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and John Irish in Paris; editing by Tim Pearce)