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Protests, counter-protests as Syria death toll rises

Syria's protests continue to challenge the regime calling for the end to "injustice and repression"

AFP , Saturday 26 Mar 2011
Pr-Assad Demo
Pro-Syrian President Bashar Assad protesters, hold Bashar Assad's posters march during a pro-Assad demonstration, in Damascus, Syria, on Friday 25 March 2011. (AP)

At least 10 people were killed in Syria Friday in another day of protests demanding major reforms while thousands of supporters of the president flooded Damascus in counter-demonstrations.

Activists said police fired on protesters in the southern village of Sanamen as they were heading to nearby Daraa for the funeral of two people killed earlier in the week during clashes with security forces.

An official told AFP that 10 people were killed the Sanamen clashes but gave no further details.

But activists in Daraa, a tribal town 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of Damascus that has emerged as the hub of protests, said between eight and 20 people were when security forces opened fire.

There was no independent confirmation of the toll.

Meanwhile Amnesty International said in a statement on Friday that 55 people had been killed during a week of unrest in and around Daraa, which lies close to the border with Jordan.

Syria this month began to witness unprecedented protests demanding major reforms in the country, which has been ruled by the Baath party for close to 50 years.

Demonstrations were also reported in Damascus, Banias, Latakia, Hama, Dahel, Homs and Daraa, with videos purporting to be of the rallies surfacing on YouTube. The authenticity of the videos could not be verified.

The Syrian official, who requested anonymity, confirmed that protesters in Daraa had burned the house of the governor, who was fired earlier this week.

Witnesses in Daraa, contacted by telephone, said demonstrators had dragged down a statue of Hafez Al-Assad, father of the current president, prompting security forces to open fire.

One man was also killed in the city of Homs, north of the capital, on Friday when angry protesters stormed the military sports club, the official added.

Friday's rallies came the morning after the government announced a string of major reforms including the possibility of ending emergency rule that has been in place since 1963.

Thousands of supporters of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad flooded the streets of Damascus on Friday night to counter demonstrations against his regime, AFP reporters witnessed.

Traffic in several main streets in the capital came to a complete standstill as convoys blared their horns and Syrians of all ages shouted support for Assad, who came to power in 2000.

A crowd, made up mostly of young people and families, marched through the landmark Omayyed Square in the centre of Damascus' Old City, bearing flags and portraits of the president and his father, late president Hafez Al-Assad.

Activists had vowed to push on with rallies against "injustice and repression" after the weekly Friday Muslim prayers, dismissing reform pledges announced by the authorities.

Facebook group The Syria Revolution 2011, which has attracted almost 78,000 fans, called for "Day of Dignity" at mosques across Syria.

While protests in the capital have largely been contained, hundreds of protesters marched Friday from the landmark Omayyed mosque through Damascus' Old City chanting "Daraa is Syria" and "We will sacrifice ourselves for Syria" before police moved in.

Assad supporters shouted back: "God, Syria and Bashar, that's all" as convoys in support of Assad took to the streets.

At least five protesters were taken away by officers in plain clothes, according to an AFP correspondent.

Reporters Without Borders on Friday condemned authorities' "censorship ... imposed on national and foreign news media seeking to cover events in the southern city of Daraa."

"The security forces have blocked access to the city so that there is no one to witness their ruthless crackdown on the protests that have been taking place there during the past few days," read the group's press release.

Journalists were ordered to leave Daraa Friday ahead of weekly prayers which have often been followed by protests.

AFP reporters saw soldiers deploy on the roads leading to Daraa, bringing with them sandbags, as they were escorted out of the town.

The crackdown on protesters has also drawn a harsh rebuke from France, Britain and the United Nations.

The United States Friday issued the latest of an almost daily string of condemnations of the violence.

"We urge on the government of Syria what we have urged on the governments in other regions: that they pursue a peaceful course here, that they participate in a political dialogue with their people, because that is the better path," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

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