Protests spread against Assad rule in Syria

DAMASCUS/DERAA, Syria, (Reuters) – Protests spread  across Syria today, challenging the rule of the Assad family  after their forces killed dozens of demonstrators in the south.
In the southern city of Deraa, which has been in revolt for  a week, gunfire and tear gas scattered a crowd of thousands  after people lit a fire under a statue of late president Hafez  al-Assad, whose son Bashar has ruled since his death in 2000.
Al Jazeera aired comments by a man who said security forces  had killed 20 people today in the nearby town of Sanamein.
In Hama, in the centre of the country, where the elder Assad  put down an Islamist revolt in 1982 at a cost of many thousands  of lives, residents said people streamed through the streets  after weekly prayers chanting “Freedom is ringing out!” — a  slogan heard in uprisings sweeping the rest of the Arab world.
The same chant had earlier marked funeral processions in  Deraa for some of the at least 37 people killed on Wednesday,  when security agents attacked pro-democracy groups at a mosque.  In all, 44 deaths have been reported in the past week in Deraa.
Security men, on alert across the country during weekly  prayers at mosques, quickly stifled a small demonstration in the  capital Damascus. They hauled away dozens among a crowd of some  200 who chanted their support for people of Deraa.
In Tel, near Damascus, about 1,000 people rallied and  chanted slogans calling relatives of Assad “thieves”.
In Deraa itself, a bastion of the Sunni majority which  resents the power and wealth amassed by the Alawite elite around  Assad, a Reuters correspondent saw thousands rally unchallenged  until the sound of heavy gunfire sent them running for cover.
Unrest in Deraa came to a head this week after police  detained more than a dozen schoolchildren for writing graffiti  against the government. In Damascus, a couple of protests by a  few dozen people shouting slogans were broken up last week.
Among the targets of the crowd’s anger on Friday was Maher  al-Assad, a brother of the president and head of the Republican  Guard, a special security force, and Rami Makhlouf, a cousin who  runs big businesses and is accused by Washington of corruption.
Allied with Shi’ite, non-Arab Iran against the Western  powers and neighbouring Israel, Assad’s Syria sits at the heart  of a complex web of conflict in the Middle East.
His anti-Israel stance has protected him against some of the  criticism aimed, for example, at Egypt’s deposed leader Hosni  Mubarak, who defended a peace treaty with the Jewish state.
Demonstrators in Deraa turned that hostility to Israel  against the government on Friday, highlighting the use of force  against them and the failure of the Assads to take back the  Golan Heights, which Israel captured in a 1967 war.
“Maher, you coward!” they chanted. “Send your troops to  liberate the Golan!”
In Deraa, before the Friday midday prayers which are the  high point of social interaction in much of the Arab world, a  procession of cars coursed through the streets honking horns and  raising pictures of the president. There were also pro-Assad  congregations in other parts of the city.
Minarets in Deraa echoed throughout the morning with the  calls of imams to the faithful to attend funerals of some of the  civilians killed, most of them when security forces fired on  demonstrators in the mainly Sunni Muslim city on Wednesday.
A Facebook page called Syrian Revolution called on people to  gather on the “Friday of Dignity” after prayers, “in all  mosques, in all provinces, in the biggest squares”.
Bashar al-Assad promised on Thursday to look into granting  Syrians greater freedoms in an attempt to defuse the outbreak of  popular demands for political freedoms and an end to corruption.
He also pledged to look at ending an emergency law in place  since 1963 and made an offer of large public pay rises.

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