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Syria Protests Continue As Thousands Take To Streets

Syria Protests

BASSEM MROUE   03/20/11 04:47 PM ET   AP

DAMASCUS, Syria — Police fired live ammunition and tear gas Sunday at thousands of Syrians protesting in a tense southern city for a third consecutive day, killing one person and signaling that unrest in yet another Arab country is taking root, activists said.

Enraged protesters set fire to several local government buildings, according to state media and a witness.

The violence in Daraa, a city of about 300,000 near the border with Jordan, was fast becoming a major challenge for President Bashar Assad, who tried to contain the situation by freeing detainees and promising to fire officials responsible for the violence.

Protesters in Syria, however, would face a tough time trying to pull off a serious uprising along the lines of those that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia. Assad's Syria is a country that crushes political dissent, closely controls the media and routinely jails critics of the regime.

Despite the political repression and rights abuses, Assad remains popular among many in the Arab world, in particular, because he is seen as one of the few Arab leaders willing to stand up to Israel. It is also not clear how much support any uprising would have within the country. A few earlier attempts to organize protests through social networking sites fell flat.

The confrontations in Syria began Friday when security troops fired at protesters in the city and killed five people.

Mazen Darwish, a prominent Syrian writer and activist who is in contact with residents and witnesses in Daraa, said one person, Raed al-Ekrad, was killed Sunday and two others suffered serious gunshot wounds when police opened fire on demonstrators calling for political freedoms and shouting anti-government slogans.

He said more than 200 people were treated for tear gas inhalation at a nearby mosque that has been transformed into a field hospital.

State-run television reported that "trouble makers" took advantage of a peaceful demonstration and set fire to several public buildings in the city. The official news agency, SANA, reported that they also opened fire at security forces who did not return fire. They said the incidents happened as a delegation sent by Assad was paying condolences to the families of the dead.

State-run media did not say what public buildings were attacked, but a witness in the city said they included the governorate office, the ruling Baath Party office, the main court building and the governor's house.

A witness in Daraa told The Associated Press by telephone that protesters were angry about Friday's deaths and mass arrests that followed. They demanded officials involved in the violence be fired.

Other activists in the capital, Damascus, confirmed the reports of police gunfire.

Neither the activists nor the Daraa witnesses would allow their names to be used for fear of government retaliation. Syria keeps a tight lid on information, particularly when it comes to security issues.

Some reports said protesters tore down pictures of Assad, but that could not be immediately confirmed.

Syria's government appeared to try to calm the situation later. An official promised to free 70 people held after the deadly protests Friday as well as the teenagers whose detention after scrawling anti-government graffiti touched off the unrest. The official said later that some of those arrested were released after it was determined they were not involved.

The Syrian official said an investigative committee recommended firing several government and security officials in Daraa, accusing them of mishandling Friday's protests.

Syria's state-run news agency SANA said Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad and a Cabinet minister, Tamer al-Hajah, were in Daraa to offer condolences on behalf of Assad to the families of those killed.

It quoted Al-Hajah as saying that Assad ordered the adoption of necessary measures to hold all of those responsible for Friday's killings accountable.

The Damascus activists said thousands of people who took part in Sunday's protests called for an end to emergency laws that have been in place since the ruling Baath Party took power in 1963.

Syrian police sealed off Daraa after Friday's demonstrations, allowing residents to leave the city but not to enter.

The National Organization for Human Rights said authorities randomly arrested people who participated in Friday's protests in at least five cities, including the coastal town of Banyas, Homs and the capital.

Ammar Qurabi, who heads the rights group, said those arrested were charged with writing anti-government slogans.

A Syrian official acknowledged only two deaths in Friday's violence and said authorities would bring those responsible to trial. The official said that even if an investigation shows security officers were guilty, they will be put on trial "no matter how high their rank is."

The violence was the worst since 2004 when clashes that began in the northeastern city of Qamishli between Syrian Kurds and security forces left at least 25 people dead and some 100 injured.

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Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed to this report from Cairo.

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Filed by Cara Parks  |