Violent anti-government protests were reported in two Syrian towns on Saturday as security forces struggled to contain the uprising in the Ba’athist state long considered one of the Arab region’s most repressive regimes.
As funerals took place of protesters killed on Friday, Ammar Qurabi, an exile in Egypt who heads Syria’s National Organization for Human Rights, said the Ba’ath party office in the coastal city of Latakia was set on fire after being attacked by dozens of people. He told Reuters that security forces killed two protesters in the town during the day.
Another activist said hundreds of protesters in the town were burning tyres and attacking cars and shops, Associated Press reported.
Reuters quoted unnamed officials as saying that five people had been killed in the violence Latakia, although the news agency did not give a timeframe.
Meanwhile Bouthaina Shaaban, a presidential adviser, said demonstrators set fire to a police station and an office of the ruling party in Tafas, 10km north of the southern city of Deraa, the epicentre of the week’s protests.
Residents told Reuters that mourners for Kamal Baradan, who was killed in Deraa on Friday, were among those attacking the buildings.
A number of funerals reportedly took place in villages around Deraa on Saturday but it is unclear how many people died on Friday. Amnesty International said that 55 people have been killed in Deraa since the start of the protests.
The reported violcence came hours after a thousands-strong demonstration in the town of Douma near Damascus was attacked at around midnight after the electricity was suddenly cut, according to activists.
They reportedly said the protesters were attacked by troops with stick and clubs and that some 200 were arested. None of the reports could not be confrmed.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a local group, said on its website on Saturday that the authorities have freed more than 200 prisoners. Other reports said anywhere between 70 and 260 prisoners had been released.
Although video footage of Friday’s protests, posted on YouTube, showed at least some of the crowds to be small, the spread of unrest in Syria at a time of extraordinary upheaval in the Arab world is the most serious domestic challenge to Bashar al-Assad since he inherited the presidency in 2000.
Over the past week, the protests have been largely confined to the southern town of Deraa and have been harshly met with a crackdown that left dozens of people dead. But on Friday unrest erupted in several other cities across the country of 21m people, as crowds answered a Facebook group call for a march in support of freedom and the victims of Deraa.
“God, Syria and Freedom only,” chanted protesters, vowing to “sacrifice for Deraa”.
Police were accused of shooting at demonstrators in the southern town of Sanamein, where people were seeking to march to Deraa. Residents said 20 people were killed when gunmen opened fire on a crowd outside a building used by military intelligence – part of an extensive security apparatus that has protected Baath party rule since 1963.
This was disputed by government officials who said protesters shot first and that security forces had killed armed attackers who tried to storm the building.
Regime supporters, who took to the streets in the capital Damascus, were also reported to have clashed with anti-regime demonstrators.
There were reports of many deaths, including in the capital Damascus. A government official confirmed that at least 10 protesters had died, reports BBC, although witnesses said up to 20 people had been killed.
In Washington, a White House spokesman said: “We strongly condemn the Syrian government’s attempts to repress and intimidate demonstrators.”
Nadim Houri, a researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said: “There are cases of violent dispersal of protests [across Syria] including use of live bullets.”
In Deraa, where residents buried their dead, security forces reduced their presence and allowed a march early on Friday. But before the end of the day gunfire could be heard after a statue of the late president Hafez al-Assad, the current leader’s father, was set on fire, residents told human rights activists.
“Syria is at what is rapidly becoming a defining moment for its leadership,” said the International Crisis Group think-tank. “There are only two options. One involves an immediate and inevitably risky political initiative that might convince the Syrian people that the regime is willing to undertake dramatic reform. The other entails escalating repression, which has every chance of leading to a bloody and ignominious end.”
As an ally of Iran and fierce critic of Israel, Syria is a strategic player in Middle East politics and has been pressing for the return of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in 1967.
Freedom appeared to be the main demand. But news agencies said demonstrators were also taking aim at Mr Assad’s family. Protesters in Tel, outside Damascus, called the president’s relatives “thieves” and those in Deraa vented anger against Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother who heads the Republican Guard. President Assad leads a minority Alawite regime in a mostly Sunni nation.
Al-Arabiya news channel quoted Muhsin Bilal, Syria’s information minister, as saying: “The situation is completely calm in all parts of the country.”
Additional reporting by Delphine Strauss in Ankara
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