DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syrian security forces killed at least three protesters in a Damascus suburb on Friday, witnesses said, as thousands turned out in pro-democracy marches despite a reform gesture by President Bashar al-Assad. (Scroll down for videos)
Activists said Syrians took to the streets after Friday prayers in the capital Damascus, Banias on the coast, Latakia port and the southern city of Deraa, where the unprecedented protests challenging Assad's 11 years in power began in March.
Witnesses in the Damascus suburb of Douma said the three killed were among at least 2,000 people who chanted "Freedom. Freedom. One, one, one. The Syrian people are one," when police opened fire to disperse them from Municipality Square.
The official state news agency SANA reported calm across the country, adding there had been peaceful calls for reform and several gatherings supporting "national unity and... stability."
In his first public appearance since the demonstrations began, Assad declined on Wednesday to spell out any reforms, especially the lifting of a 48-year-old emergency law that has been used to stifle opposition and justify arbitrary arrests.
"Thousands gathered today in Deraa, spontaneously, after Friday prayers in Deraa from all the mosques, rejecting the President's speech," said political activist Abu Hazem, who spoke to Al Arabiya television from Deraa.
"There is a heavy security cordon all around the city of Deraa... blocking all entry points into the city," he said, adding there were no confrontations.
Assad, who became president after his father Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, had predicted the popular revolts seen in Tunisia and Egypt would not spread to Syria, saying the ruling hierarchy was "very closely linked to the beliefs of the people."
But for the last two weeks thousands of Syrians have turned out demanding greater freedoms in the tightly controlled Arab state, posing the gravest challenge to almost 50 years of monolithic Baath Party rule.
More than 60 people have been killed in the unrest, which could have wider repercussions since Syria is in the thick of the Middle East conflict, maintaining an anti-Israel alliance with Iran and supporting militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.
SYRIA ACKNOWLEDGES PRO-REFORM "GATHERINGS"
SANA news agency acknowledged for the first time on Friday that worshippers in Deraa and Latakia, scene of protests and deadly clashes last week, had gathered after Friday prayers to call for accelerated reforms.
"A number of worshippers left some mosques in the cities of Deraa and Latakia, chanting slogans in honor of the martyr and calling for speeding up measures for reform ... There were no clashes between worshippers and security forces in these gatherings," it said.
A witness told Reuters security forces and Assad loyalists attacked about 200 worshippers with batons as they marched outside the Refaie mosque in the Kfar Sousseh district of Damascus, chanting slogans in support of Deraa.
At least six protesters were arrested, the witness told Reuters by telephone from the mosque complex.
Online democracy activists had called for protests across Syria on "Martyrs' Friday," after Assad gave no clear commitment to meet demands for greater freedoms and said Syria was the target of a "big conspiracy."
Government-appointed preachers whose sermons are officially endorsed denounced "acts of turmoil" which they said had been "provoked from the outside and had targeted the nation's security."
On Thursday Assad ordered the creation of a panel that would draft anti-terrorism legislation to replace emergency law, a move critics have dismissed, saying they expect the new legislation will give the state much of the same powers.
Assad also formed a panel tasked with investigating the deaths of civilians and security forces in Deraa and in Latakia, where clashes that authorities blamed on "armed gangs" occurred last week, killing 12 people, according to officials.
The Syrian News Agency said security forces had arrested two armed groups that opened fire and attacked citizens in a Damascus suburb. It did not say how many people were detained.
Assad also formed a panel to "solve the problem of the 1962 census" in the eastern region of al-Hasaka. The census resulted in 150,000 Kurds who now live in Syria being denied nationality.
(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman; writing by Yara Bayoumy; editing by Philippa Fletcher)
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