Syria’s Assad faces crisis, mourners burn buildings

DAMASCUS, (Reuters) – Thousands of mourners at a  funeral for a Syrian killed in anti-government protests burned a  ruling Baath party building and a police station today as  authorities freed 260 prisoners in a bid to placate reformists.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was facing the deepest  crisis of his 11 years in power after security forces fired on  protesters on Friday, adding to a death toll that rights groups  have said now numbers in the dozens.
Mosques across Deraa announced the names of “martyrs” whose  funerals would be held in the southern city and today  hundreds were gathering in the main square chanting for freedom.
Three bare-chested young men climbed onto the rubble of a  statue of late President Hafez al-Assad, which protesters pulled  down on Friday in a scene that recalled the toppling of Saddam  Hussein’s statue in Iraq in 2003 by U.S. troops.
A witness said they had cardboard signs reading “the people  want the downfall of the regime”, a refrain heard in uprisings  across the Arab world from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen.
In nearby Tafas, mourners in the funeral procession of Kamal  Baradan, who was killed on Friday in Deraa, set fire to the  Baath party building and the police station, residents said.
A human rights lawyer said today that 260 prisoners,  mostly Islamists, had been released after completing at least  three-quarters of their sentences.
Dozens of people have been killed over the past week around  the southern city of Deraa, medical officials said. There were  reports of more than 20 new deaths on Friday.
Such demonstrations would have been unthinkable a couple of  months ago in this most tightly controlled of Arab countries.
But the unrest came to a head after police detained more  than a dozen schoolchildren for writing graffiti inspired by  slogans used by other pro-democracy demonstrators abroad.
Amnesty International put the death toll in and around Deraa  in the past week at 55 at least. Shops reopened in Deraa today, and security forces were not in evidence.

INTERNATIONAL CONDEMNATION
There was a chorus of international condemnation of the  shootings of demonstrators.
But analysts said foreign nations were likely to tread  carefully around Syria, which has a close alliance with Iran and  links to Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas and Lebanese  Shi’ite political and military group Hezbollah.
Bordered by Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, Syria  and its 22 million people sit at the heart of a complex web of  conflict in the Middle East.
There were also protests on Friday in Damascus and in Hama,  a northern city where in 1982 the forces of Assad’s father  killed thousands of people and razed much of the old quarter to  put down an armed uprising by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
Abdelhalim Khaddam, a former vice president who resigned and  defected from the ruling Baath Party in 2005, said on Saturday   “the blood of our martyrs will burn this regime”.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said on Friday Syria’s  security forces should immediately stop using live ammunition  against protesters in Deraa which is on the border with Jordan.
“President Bashar al-Assad’s talk about reforms doesn’t mean  anything when his security forces are mowing down people who  want to talk about them,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle  East and North Africa director.
Some believed the crackdown followed by talks could lead to  reforms but many said a tipping point had been reached in Syria.

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