DERAA, Syria (Reuters) – Syrian security forces killed two people yesterday and four on Friday in anti-government protests in the port city of Latakia, reformist activists living abroad told Reuters.
President Bashar al-Assad, facing his deepest crisis in 11 years in power after security forces fired on protesters on Friday in the southern town of Deraa, freed 260 prisoners in an apparent bid to placate a swelling protest movement. But the reports from the port city of Latakia in the north suggested unrest was still spreading.
There were reports of more than 20 deaths on Friday, and medical officials say dozens have now been killed in total over the past week around Deraa alone.
Such demonstrations would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago in this most tightly controlled of Arab countries.
Bouthaina Shaaban, a senior adviser to Assad, told the official news agency Syria was “the target of a project to sow sectarian strife to compromise Syria and (its) unique coexistence model.”
Syrian rights activist Ammar Qurabi told Reuters in Cairo: “There have been at least two killed today after security forces opened fire on protesters trying to torch the Baath party building.”
“I have been in touch with people in Syria since last night, using three cell phones and constantly sitting online. Events are moving at an extremely fast pace.”
Exiled dissident Maamoun al-Homsi told Reuters by telephone from Canada: “I have the name of four martyrs who have fallen in Latakia yesterday.”
The state news agency quoted a government source as saying security forces had not fired at protesters but that an armed group had taken over rooftops and fired on citizens and security forces, killing five people since Friday. In Damascus and other cities, thousands of Assad’s supporters marched or and drove around, waving flags, to proclaim their allegiance to the Baath party.
The unrest in Syria came to a head after police detained more than a dozen schoolchildren for scrawling graffiti inspired by pro-democracy protests across the Arab world.
President Bashar al-Assad made a public pledge on Thursday to look into granting greater freedom and lifting emergency laws dating back to 1963, but failed to dampen the protests.Yesterday a human rights lawyer said 260 prisoners, mostly Islamists, had been freed after serving at least three-quarters of their sentences.
Amnesty International put the death toll in and around Deraa in the past week at 55 at least. The funerals of protesters killed in Deraa on Friday were held yesterday in Deraa and nearby villages, residents said.
Several thousand mourners prayed over the body of 13-year-old Seeta al-Akrad in Deraa’s Omari mosque, scene of an attack by security forces earlier in the week, then marched to a cemetery in the old quarter.
Security forces were not in evidence at the march, in which mourners chanted “The people want the downfall of the regime”, a refrain heard in uprisings from Tunisia to Egypt and Yemen. Emboldened by the lack of security, the mourners also chanted: “Strike, strike, until the regime falls!”
Abu Jassem, a Deraa resident, said: “We were under a lot of pressure from the oppressive authority, but now when you pass by (the security forces), nobody utters a word. They don’t dare talk to the people. The people have no fear any more.”
Hundreds of protesters gathered in Deraa’s main square.
Three young men climbed on the rubble of a statue of the late president Hafez al-Assad that protesters had pulled down on Friday in a scene that recalled the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Iraq by US troops in 2003.
Later on, security forces fired tear gas to disperse hundreds staging a sit-in in another square, a witness said. Some protesters returned later to try to set up a protest camp.
In nearby Tafas, mourners in the funeral procession of Kamal Baradan, killed on Friday in Deraa, set fire to Baath party offices and the police station, residents said.
There were also protests on Friday in Damascus and in Hama, a northern city where in 1982 the forces of Hafez al-Assad killed thousands of people and razed much of the old quarter to put down an armed uprising by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
Internally, rule by the Assads has favoured the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, causing resentment among the Sunni Muslim majority. Latakia is mostly Sunni Muslim but has significant numbers of Alawites.
Syria’s government-appointed Sunni mufti, Ahmed Badr Hassoun, blamed “strife” on “infiltrators” and “corruptors.“
“What happens requires that people reconcile together and not goad them against each other … What’s happening in Libya — do you want it to happen in Syria?” he told Al Jazeera television.
Edward Walker, a former US ambassador to Egypt, said sectarian friction made many in the establishment wary of giving ground to demands for political freedoms and economic reforms.