Damascus protesters seized, Deraa chants "freedom"

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 25, 2011 8:37 AM

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Suleiman al-Khalidi

DAMASCUS/DERAA, Syria (Reuters) - Syrian security men seized dozens of people who staged a brief pro-democracy march in Damascus Friday, as protests that have flared in the south inspired support in the capital.

But a day after President Bashar al-Assad, scion of half a century of Baathist rule, offered to consider granting political freedoms, thousands marched freely in the southern city of Deraa behind the coffins of protesters gunned down by Assad's forces.

"Freedom is ringing out!" chanted mourners for some of at least 37 people killed Wednesday, when security agents broke up a pro-democracy encampment at a mosque in Deraa.

Despite a continued heavy security presence in Deraa, close to the Jordanian border, thousands of protesters were arriving in the city from nearby villages, offering support to a movement which has tried to emulate Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

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.

Friday, some 200 people shouted chants in support of the people in the south -- "We sacrifice our blood, our soul, for you Deraa!" -- before plainclothes police and other security officers moved in to arrest them. Several hundred people yelled pro-government slogans nearby, close to Damascus's Old City.

PRO-GOVERNMENT SLOGANS

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 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."

But similar calls over the past two months have generated little that could threaten the grip of Assad, who succeeded his late father, Hafez al-Assad, 11 years ago at the head of a powerful elite based on their Alawite religious minority.

Bashar al-Assad promised 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.

Despite Assad's gesture, which included a pledge to look into ending emergency law and an offer of large public pay rises, thousands of Syrians later turned out at the Omari mosque in Deraa Thursday to chant "freedom, revolution."

Syrian security forces pulled out Thursday from the mosque where several people were killed. People later converged on the mosque to celebrate its "liberation," setting off fireworks and honking car horns.

POSSIBLE REFORMS

As an aide was announcing Assad would study a possible end to 48 years of emergency rule, a human rights group said a leading pro-democracy activist, Mazen Darwish, had been arrested.

On January 31, Assad had said there was no chance political upheavals then shaking Tunisia and Egypt would spread to Syria.

The Baath Party, which has ruled Syria tightly since a 1963 coup, would draft laws to provide for media freedoms, and would look at allowing other political movements, Assad's aide said. The party would also seek to lift living standards.

Assad, who has strengthened Syria's ties with Iran, has come under criticism for his handling of the protests. The United States described the shootings of protesters as "brutal."

"For now, this remains a geographically isolated tragedy. But it also constitutes an ominous precedent with widespread popular resonance that could soon be repeated elsewhere," the International Crisis Group think-tank said.

Syrian authorities released all those arrested in the Deraa region since the protests erupted, an official statement said, without giving a figure.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that Syria should follow the example of Egypt, where the army held fire and helped the people overthrow the rule of Hosni Mubarak.

"I would say that what the Syrian government is confronting is in fact the same challenge that faces so many governments across the region, and that is the unmet political and economic grievances of their people," Gates said.

(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Beirut; writing by Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Alastair Macdonald; editing by Mark Heinrich)