BEIRUT – Gunmen opened fire Sunday on a car carrying a senior Syrian state prosecutor and a judge in the restive northwest province of Idlib, killing both of them and their driver, according to the state news agency.
Syrian military defectors waging an armed struggle against President Bashar Assad's regime control parts of Idlib province, which borders Turkey. It has been one of the regions hardest hit by the government crackdown on an 11-month-old uprising against Assad's regime.
State news agency SANA said Idlib provincial state prosecutor Nidal Ghazal and Judge Mohammed Ziadeh were killed instantly in the attack. Activists reported at least 14 other people killed
On Saturday, SANA said gunmen shot dead Jamal al-Bish, member of the city council of the nearby northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest. It said he was killed outside the city, a center of support for Assad that has been relatively quiet since the uprising began.
The Syrian government blames armed "terrorists" for the uprising and says they are carrying out a foreign conspiracy to destabilize the country.
Clashes between military rebels and Syrian forces are growing more frequent and the defectors have managed to take control of small pieces of territory in the north and in central Homs province. The increasing militarization of the conflict is pushing Syria to the brink of a civil war.
The U.N. last gave a death toll for the conflict in January, saying 5,400 had been killed in 2011 alone. But hundreds more have been killed since, according to activist groups. The group Local Coordination Committees says more than 7,300 have been killed since March of last year. There is no way to independently verify the numbers, however, as Syria bans almost all foreign journalists and human rights organizations.
In other violence, activists reported that security forces shelled rebel-held areas in the besieged city of Homs.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said forces continued to shell the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr, which has been under government attack since Feb. 4. The Observatory, which has activists throughout Syria, said 23 buses full of troops along with military vehicles and ambulances were seen heading from Damascus toward Homs.
The group also said troops stormed the eastern town of Sukhna searching for fugitive members of the opposition, and that one woman was shot dead during the raids. It said two other people were killed by troops in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour and the northern village of Atareb.
SANA said four people, a student and three civil servants, were shot killed in the central province of Hama when gunmen opened fire at a bus carrying them.
The LCC said 17 people were killed in Syria Sunday, nine of them in Idlib and six in Homs. The toll appeared to include the judge and the prosecutor. The Observatory put the toll at 14, not including the two judicial officials.
Syrian authorities also released late Saturday six women who were among 13 activists detained in Damascus two days earlier, said Rima Fleihan of the Local Coordination Committees and Rami Abdul-Rahman who heads the Observatory. They said the women, including U.S.-born blogger and press freedom campaigner Razzan Ghazzawi, were released on condition that they report to authorities every morning.
"They were questioned about groups that are funding them and their contacts with foreign parties," Abdul-Rahman said. It was not clear when the men, including leading human rights activist Mazen Darwish, will be released, they said.
It was the second time Ghazzawi was detained. Ghazzawi, who was born in Miami, Fl., was arrested early in the uprising and charged with spreading false information, but she was released after about two weeks.
Activist groups called a one-day strike in the capital Damascus to express support for other cities in revolt. But the call did not appear to have been widely heeded. Residents in the capital told The Associated Press that businesses were open as usual on the first day of the work week and so were schools and universities.
Calls for strikes in the past did not succeed in tightly controlled Damascus, where government forces and informers keep a close eye on all activities. The capital has been mostly quiet since the uprising began.
Earlier Sunday, a funeral was held in Damascus for a man who was killed a day earlier when Syrian security forces fired live rounds and tear gas at thousands of people marching in a funeral procession that turned into one of the largest protests in the capital.
The Local Coordination Committees said security forces pressured the parents of the victim, Samer al-Khatib, to bury him early so his funeral would not turn into an anti-government protest.
Meanwhile, Egypt's foreign ministry said it is withdrawing its ambassador to Syria. Many Arab countries have been scaling back diplomatic representation in Syria as Assad's regime rejects an Arab League plan to resolve the crisis that calls for the president to step aside and transfer power to his vice president.