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.
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.