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'Freedom!' Marchers demand more Syria reforms

Image: Syria protest
A Syrian Arab News Agency photograph shows Syrians shouting slogans of freedom and in support of martyrs during a demonstration in Deir Ezzs-Zour province in northern Syria on Friday.EPA
/ Source: news services

Security forces fired tear gas and beat protesters with batons Friday as tens of thousands of people marched toward the Syrian capital of Damascus demanding far greater reforms than the limited concessions offered by President Bashar Assad over the past four weeks, witnesses said.

The violence in the Damascus suburb of Douma was the only major unrest reported during protests in several Syrian cities on Friday, the main day for demonstrations across the Arab world. But the attempt to reach the capital was a bold action by a protest movement that has mostly stayed outside Damascus so far.

The protesters in Douma held up yellow cards, which they said was a soccer-inspired warning to the regime.

"This is our first warning, next time we will come with the red cards," said one protester who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone. He asked that his name not be used because of fears for his personal safety.

The monthlong protest movement in Syria has steadily gathered momentum as tens of thousands of people demand sweeping reforms in Assad's authoritarian regime. More than 200 people have been killed during the government crackdown on protesters, according to Syria's main pro-democracy group.

On Friday, crowds gathered in several Syrian cities chanting "Freedom!" and demanding an end to the decades-old emergency laws, which allow the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge. Lifting the state of emergency has been a key demand of the protesters.

The largest protests were in Douma and in the southern city of Daraa, which has become the epicenter of the protest movement. Witnesses said there were up to 100,000 people outside the capital and at least 20,000 in Daraa.

It was impossible to independently verify the witness accounts because Syria has placed tight restrictions on media coverage, preventing access to trouble spots and expelling journalists.

There was no immediate sign of army and security services in Daraa — a stark change from previous weeks, when Syrian forces fired tear gas and live bullets at the protesters.

Syria has facing growing international condemnation as the unrest continues. The French Foreign Ministry said Friday that the French, German, Italian, Spanish and British ambassadors met Friday with the Syrian foreign minister to discuss the deteriorating situation in Syria.

"The ambassadors expressed the very serious concern of their authorities about the continued violence and deaths across the country," the statement said. It added that ambassadors called on Syrian authorities to respond to the legitimate demands of the Syrian people.

For the first time, Syrian television showed footage of protests in several cities — a sign that state-run television cannot simply ignore the growing protests. It also offered the regime a chance to offer its own version of events.

The Syrian TV reports presented a far less dire picture, saying about 300 people protested in the port city of Latakia, calling for freedoms. It said the march in Douma attracted more than 300 people marched carrying white flags and calling for freedoms and reforms. There was no mention of an attack by security forces.

It also said about 30 people protested in the central city of Homs and in the city of Deir ez-Zor.

In central Damascus, hundred of regime supporters marched near the historic Umayyad mosque, carrying pictures of Assad and chanting "Our souls, our blood we sacrifice for you Bashar."

Last Friday was the deadliest day since protests began with 37 people killed, most of them in Daraa.

Human Rights Watch issued a report Friday saying Syrian security and intelligence agencies have detained and tortured hundreds of protesters during a month of demonstrations.

"There can be no real reforms in Syria while security forces abuse people with impunity," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "President Assad needs to rein in his security services and hold them to account for arbitrary arrests and torture."

Syria's government and its state-run media have sought to cast the unrest as a foreign conspiracy perpetrated by armed gangs targeting security forces and civilians. Reform activists, however, say their movement is peaceful.

Assad has tried to calm the protests with promises of reform, such as forming committees to look into replacing the emergency laws and freeing detainees. But the protesters say the gestures are not nearly enough.

Also Friday, a Syrian journalist told The Associated Press he was set free after 16-day detention during which he was whipped and beaten. The journalist said he was set free shortly before midnight Thursday.

The journalist, who asked that his name not be made public, said he saw some 200 detainees being freed from the detention center where he was held.

The unrest in Syria could have ripple effects across the region, given the country's role as Iran's top Arab ally and as a front line state against Israel.

The Obama administration said Thursday that Iran appears to be helping Syria crack down on protesters, calling it a troubling example of Iranian meddling in the region and an indication that Assad isn't interested in real reform.

Syria's Foreign Ministry denied the U.S. claims saying they are saying it is untrue.

"If the State Department has evidence why aren't they made public," an unnamed foreign ministry official was quoted by state-run news agency SANA as saying.

Arab uprisings continue
Elsewhere Friday in the Mideast: