Image: Syrians anti and pro-Assad protesters clash after Friday prayers in Damascus, Syria
Muzaffar Salman  /  AP
Anti- and pro-Assad protesters clash after Friday prayers in Damascus, Syria, on Friday. Thousands of Syrians took to the streets Friday demanding reforms and mourning dozens of protesters who were killed during a violent, week-long crackdown.
msnbc.com news services
updated 3/25/2011 7:21:40 PM ET 2011-03-25T23:21:40

Protests spread across Syria on Friday, challenging the 40-year rule of the Assad family after their forces killed dozens of demonstrators in the south.

There was more bloodshed after weekly prayers, with reports of at least 23 dead, including for the first time in the capital Damascus. Information on casualties was limited and President Bashar al-Assad's authorities restricted journalists' movements.

In Daraa, tens of thousands marched in funerals for some of the dead, chanting "Freedom!" In a central square, a Reuters correspondent saw protesters haul down a statue of Assad's father, late president Hafez al-Assad, before plainclothes security men 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, a crowd of protesters gathered again in the main square and set 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 Daraa who compared events to the uprisings in Egypt and other Arab states. "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.

Violence in Sanamein
In the town of Sanamein, which is in the same southern area of the country as Daraa, local 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 in Sanamein.

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Daraa is a bastion of tribes belonging to Syria's Sunni Muslim majority who resent the power and wealth amassed by an elite from the Alawite minority to which the Assads belong.

Amnesty International put the death toll around the town in the past week at 55 at least, though local people had spoken of twice that number even before Friday. Hospital officials said on Thursday that at least 37 were killed when security forces destroyed a pro-democracy protest camp at a mosque on Wednesday.

In Hama, in the center of the country, where the elder Assad put down an Islamist revolt in 1982 at a cost of many thousands of lives, residents said people streamed through the streets after weekly prayers chanting "Freedom is ringing out!" — a slogan heard in uprisings sweeping the rest of the Arab world.

The United States, France and Britain urged Assad to refrain from violence. A week ago they launched a U.N.-backed air campaign to protect opponents of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.

But analysts see little chance that heavily armed Syria, which is wrapped in an anti-Western, anti-Israel alliance with Iran and sits within a web of conflicts across the region, may face the sort of foreign intervention seen in North Africa.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon telephoned Assad to urge "maximum restraint" by a government which has long been accused of taking extreme measures to suppress dissent.

U.S. President Barack Obama's spokesman said: "We strongly condemn the Syrian government's attempts to repress and intimidate demonstrators."

A spokeswoman for Assad's information ministry denied that accusation and said some protesters had been carrying weapons.

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."

In Damascus, the heart of Assad's rule, protests and clashes broke out in multiple neighborhoods as crowds of regime opponents marched and thousands of Assad loyalists drove in convoys, shouting, "Bashar, we love you!"

The two sides battled, whipping each other with leather belts, in the old city of Damascus outside the historic Umayyad mosque, parts of which date to the 8th century. About two miles (three kilometers) away, central Umayyad Square was packed with demonstrators who traded punches and hit each other with sticks from Syrian flags, according to Associated Press reporters at the scene.

An amateur video posted on the Internet showed hundreds of young men marching though Damascus' old covered bazaar, some riding on others' shoulders and pumping their fists in the air as they chanted: "With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, Daraa!"

Security forces chased and beat some 200 protesters chanting "Freedom, Freedom!" on a bridge in the center of the city, an activist said.

In Daraa, young men announced their rejection of the rulers by replacing the word "Bashar" with the word "Freedom" in a traditional loyalty slogan — "God, Syria and Freedom Only!" the

Security men, on alert across the country during weekly prayers at mosques, quickly stifled a small demonstration in the capital Damascus. They hauled away dozens among a crowd of some 200 who chanted their support for people of Daraa.

Later, residents of the Damascus suburb of Maadamiyeh said three people were killed when a crowd confronted a procession of cars driven by Assad supporters. In Tel, near Damascus, about 1,000 people rallied and chanted slogans, residents said.

Unrest in Daraa 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.

Among the targets of popular anger on Friday were Maher al-Assad, a brother of the president and head of the Republican Guard, a special security force, and Rami Makhlouf, a cousin who runs big businesses and is accused by Washington of corruption.

Assad's anti-Israel stance has protected him against some of the criticism aimed, for example, at Egypt's deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, who promoted peace with the Jewish state.

Demonstrators in Daraa turned that hostility to Israel against the government on Friday, highlighting the use of force against Syrian civilians and the failure of the Assads to take back the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in a 1967 war.

"Maher, you coward!" they chanted. "Send your troops to liberate the Golan!"

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

Troops responded with heavy gunfire, according to a resident who said he saw two bodies and many wounded people brought to Daraa's main hospital.

After night fell, thousands of enraged protesters snatched weapons from a far smaller number of troops and chased them out of Daraa's Roman-era old city, taking back control of the al-Omari mosque, the epicenter of the past week's protests.

The accounts could not be immediately independently confirmed because of Syria's tight restrictions on the press.

In Damascus, the heart of Bashar Assad's rule, protests and clashes broke out in multiple neighborhoods as crowds of regime opponents marched and thousands of Assad loyalists drove in convoys, shouting, "Bashar, we love you!"

The two sides battled, whipping each other with leather belts, in the old city of Damascus outside the historic Umayyad mosque, parts of which date to the 8th century. About two miles (three kilometers) away, central Umayyad Square was packed with demonstrators who traded punches and hit each other with sticks from Syrian flags, according to Associated Press reporters at the scene.

An amateur video posted on the Internet showed hundreds of young men marching though Damascus' old covered bazaar, some riding on others' shoulders and pumping their fists in the air as they chanted: "With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, Daraa!"

Security forces chased and beat some 200 protesters chanting "Freedom, Freedom!" on a bridge in the center of the city, an activist said.

After dark, troops opened fire on protesters in the Damascus suburb of Maadamiyeh, a witness told the AP. An activist in contact with people there said three had been killed.

The scenes of chaos and violence shocked many in this tightly controlled country where protests are usually confined to government-orchestrated demonstrations in support of the regime, and political discussions are confined to whispers, mainly indoors.

"There's a barrier of fear that has been broken and the demands are changing with every new death," said Ayman Abdul-Nour, a Dubai-based former member of Assad's ruling Baath Party. "We're starting to hear calls for the regime's ouster."

Also startling was the scope of the protests — in multiple cities around the country of nearly 24 million.

Troops opened fire on more than 1,000 people marching in Syria's main Mediterranean port, Latakia. One activist told the AP that witnesses saw four slain protesters in a hospital. Another was reported killed in the central city of Homs, where hundreds of people demonstrated in support of Daraa and demanded reforms, he said. The activist, like others around the country, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by the regime.

Demonstrators in the southern village of Sanamein tried to march to Daraa in support of the protesters, but were met by troops who opened fire, said an activist in Damascus in touch with witnesses there. He said the witnesses reported as many as 20 fatalities, though it was impossible to confirm the number.

A video posted on Facebook by Syrian pro-democracy activists showed five dead young men lying on stretchers in Sanamein as men wept around them. The voice of a woman could be heard saying, "Down with Bashar Assad."

An unidentified Syrian official asserted that an armed group attacked the army headquarters in Sanamein and tried to storm it, leading to a clash with guards.

Further protests erupted in the town of Douma, outside the capital, and the cities of Raqqa in the north and Zabadani in the west, near the border with Lebanon, a human rights activist said, reporting an unknown number of protesters detained.

The protests in Damascus appeared led by relatively well-off Syrians, many of whom who have been calling for reforms for years and have relatives jailed as political prisoners.

They contrast sharply with the working-class Sunni protesters in conservative Daraa, where small farmers and herders pushed off their land by drought have increasingly moved into the province's main city and surrounding villages, looking for work and in many cases growing angry at the lack of opportunity.

The protests in Daraa appeared to take on a sectarian dimension, with some accusing the regime of using Shiite Hezbollah and Iranian operatives in the crackdown.

The origin of the protests, far from urban centers, makes Syria's uprising similar to Tunisia's, in which demonstrations in towns and villages spread to cities, said Bassam Haddad, director of the Middle East studies program at George Mason University.

That doesn't necessarily mean the regime is in danger, he said. "If this continues at the level we see right now or if the regime finds a way to deal with the protests at this level, the Syrian regime will be able to weather the storm." But he said the bloodshed could only cause protests to expand.

The White House urged Syria's government to cease attacks on protesters and Turkey said its neighbor should quickly enact reforms to meet legitimate demands. The U.N. said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke to Assad Friday morning and underlined "that governments had an obligation to respect and protect their citizens' fundamental rights."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Mayhem reigns across Middle East

  1. Closed captioning of: Mayhem reigns across Middle East

    >>> elsewhere in the region, the arab uprising appeared to gather force today. protesters in syria , in yemen and in jordan took to the streets, and arab dictators fought back, sometimes with deadly force . ron allen joins us now from amman, jordan , with more.

    >> reporter: good evening, lester. yes, jordan had been relatively quiet until a stunning outburst of violence here today. syria was even worse , with more dead and wounded on the streets, as so many people in this part of the world continue their fight for their rights and freedoms. as thousands of syrians took to the streets again today, a crackdown. witnesses say president bashar assad 's security forces opened fire. more than 50 people killed, according to human rights activists, in the town of daraa, epicenter of the uprising. video posted on the internet the only images of the carnage.

    >> the only way that assad can stay in power is by being brutal. he has lost his legitimacy.

    >> reporter: just yesterday a presidential adviser had promised a laundry list of reforms, higher pay, corruption investigations, a possible end to 48 years of emergency law. but clearly, many syrians are not buying it. in yemen , the crowds were even larger. hundreds of thousands demanding president ali abdullah saleh step down. saleh has lost key support in recent days. top military commanders and tribal leaders have joined the opposition. disgusted by a massacre last friday that killed nearly 50. today saleh was defiant, vowing not to hand over power. the u.s. counts on him to keep pressure on al qaeda in yemen and is reportedly trying to broker a deal. by phone a newspaper editor there said the president and the nation are running out of time .

    >> i don't think it will take more than a week. i believe that saleh will step down. it's either that or we could see a civil war in yemen after the week.

    >> reporter: and now jordan . clashes between supporters and opponents of king abdullah , broken up by security forces . the violence happens as u.s. defense secretary robert gates was here urging the king to move faster on reforms. reforms clearly not happening fast enough for the thousands in the streets across the region. the security forces here in jordan quickly moved the protesters out. they are determined not to let jordan become like syria and yemen . lester.

    >> ron allen in amman, thanks.

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