DAMASCUS (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad faced the deepest crisis of his 11 years in power on Saturday, with one city in the grip of anti-government protesters and unrest spreading to other parts of Syria.
Dozens of people have been killed over the past week around the southern city of Deraa, medical officials have said, and there were reports of more than 20 new deaths on Friday, during demonstrations that would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago in this most tightly controlled of Arab countries.
There were also protests in the capital 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.
Government officials accused armed opponents of taking part in demonstrations and they justified the use of force.
Access for journalists was restricted, although a Reuters reporter in Deraa said tens of thousands of people who marched on Friday during funerals for demonstrators killed earlier in the week appeared largely to be unarmed.
Inspired by successful uprisings against authoritarian rule in Egypt and Tunisia, the mourners chanted for "Freedom."
The International Crisis Group think-tank said the 45-year-old, British-educated Assad could call on reserves of goodwill among the population to steer away from confrontation and introduce political and economic reforms.
"Syria is at what is rapidly becoming a defining moment for its leadership," the think-tank wrote on Friday. "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 change.
"The other entails escalating repression, which has every chance of leading to a bloody and ignominious end."
There was a chorus of international condemnation of the shootings of demonstrators. But analysts said Syria, which has strong defenses and a close alliance with Iran, was unlikely to face the kind of foreign intervention currently seen in Libya.
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.
Internally, rule by the Assads has favored the minority Alawite sect, causing resentments among the Sunni Muslim majority. Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, said that friction made many in the establishment wary of giving ground to demands for political freedoms and economic reforms.
"They are a basically reviled minority, the Alawites, and if they lose power, if they succumb to popular revolution, they will be hanging from the lamp posts," he said.
"They have absolutely no incentive to back off."
A serving Western diplomat said he had been surprised, however, by how far demonstrators had gone in taking to the streets to demand change. "They've crossed the fear line, which in Syria is remarkable," the diplomat said.
In a central square in Deraa, the Reuters reporter saw protesters haul down a statue of Assad's father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, before security men in plain clothes opened fire with automatic rifles from buildings.
The crowd of some 3,000 scattered under volleys of bullets and tear gas. The reporter saw some wounded helped into cars and ambulances. It was unclear how many, if any, were killed.
By evening, however, security forces appeared to have melted away and a crowd of protesters gathered again in the main square, setting a government building on fire, witnesses said.
"The barrier of fear is broken. This is a first step on the road to toppling the regime," said Ibrahim, a middle-aged lawyer in Deraa who compared events to the uprisings in Egypt and other Arab countries. "We have reached the point of no return."
After pulling down the statue, in a scene that recalled the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 by U.S. troops, some protesters poured fuel into the broken cast and set it alight.
In the town of Sanamein, which is in the same southern area of the country as 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.
Syria's national news agency said security forces had killed armed attackers who tried to storm the building.
Amnesty International put the death toll in Deraa in the past week at 55 at least.
Thousands of Assad's supporters waved flags, marched and drove in cars around Damascus and other cities to proclaim their allegiance to the Baath party and to Assad, whose father took power in a coup in 1970.
Unrest in Deraa came to a head this week after police detained more than a dozen schoolchildren for writing graffiti inspired by slogans used by pro-democracy demonstrators abroad.
Assad had promised on 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.
He also pledged to look at ending an emergency law in place since 1963 and made an offer of large public pay rises.
But demonstrators said they did not believe the promises.
On January 31, Assad had said there was no chance political upheavals then shaking Tunisia and Egypt would spread to Syria.
(Reporting by Reuters correspondents in Damascus and Deraa, Yara Bayoumy in Beirut and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; writing by Alastair Macdonald; editing by Ralph Gowling)