AMMAN (Reuters) - Protests erupted across Syria against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad on Friday and sources said 22 people were killed in the southern city of Deraa, the cradle of the unrest.
In the east, thousands of ethnic Kurds demonstrated for reform despite the president’s offer this week to ease rules which bar many Kurds from citizenship, activists said.
Protests swept the country of 20 million people, from the Mediterranean port of Latakia to Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border, as demonstrations entered a fourth week in defiance of Assad’s security crackdown and growing list of reform pledges.
“Freedom, freedom, we want freedom,” thousands of protesters chanted in many Syrian cities. Some shouted: “We sacrifice our blood and soul for you, Deraa.”
Residents said security forces used water cannon and smoke bombs to break up 2,000 protesters in Hama, where thousands of people were killed in 1982 when Assad’s father Hafez al-Assad crushed an armed uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood.
In Deraa, where demonstrations first broke out in March, residents said security forces fired on thousands of protesters, who set fire to a building belonging to the ruling Baath Party and smashed a statue of the president’s brother, Basil.
A volunteer at Deraa hospital and an activist said 22 people were killed and 120 wounded. It took the death toll in three weeks of protests to more than 90.
State television said armed groups killed 19 policemen and wounded 75 in Deraa.
Authorities have blamed armed groups for the violence and state television broadcast footage on Friday of plain clothed gunmen it said fired at security forces and civilians alike.
Syria has prevented other news media from reporting from Deraa.
“I saw pools of blood and three bodies in the street being picked up by relatives,” a Deraa resident told Reuters by phone.
“There were snipers on roofs. Gunfire was heavy. The injured are being taken to homes. No one trusts putting his relative in a hospital in these circumstances,” he added. Many protesters feared they would be arrested if taken to clinics.
Another resident who gave his name as Abu Salem said many bodies were lying on the streets of Deraa.
“But no one can reach them because the area is surrounded,” he said, suggesting that death toll could be higher than first believed.
The city’s Omari Mosque was turned once again into a makeshift clinic, residents said, and its loudspeakers broadcast an appeal for medical assistance.
Popular demonstrations calling for greater freedom have shaken the country, ruled under emergency law since Assad’s Baath Party took power in a 1963 coup.
Assad has responded with a blend of force against protesters, gestures toward political reform and concessions to conservative Muslims including closing Syria’s only casino.
Activists said the steps taken were not enough.
A key demand of the protesters is the repeal of the emergency law. Assad ordered a committee to study replacing it with anti-terrorism legislation, but critics say it will probably grant the state many of the same powers.
Under Assad, who took over as president in 2000 when his father after 30 years in power, Syria has been Iran’s closest Arab ally, a major player in Lebanon and a supporter of militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.
In the northeastern city of Qamishli, Kurdish youths chanted: “No Kurd, no Arab, Syrian people are one. We salute the martyrs of Deraa.” The protests broke out despite Assad’s pledge on Thursday to grant citizenship to stateless Kurds.
It was not clear how many Kurds would be given nationality, but at least 150,000 Kurds are registered as foreigners as a result of a 1962 census in the eastern region of al-Hasaka.
“The citizenship gesture only helped fuel the street. The Kurdish cause is one for democracy, freedom and cultural identity,” Hassan Kamel, a senior member of the Kurdish Democratic Party, told Reuters.
Protests erupted in the western city of Homs, where Assad sacked the governor on Thursday, and gunfire was heard in the Damascus suburb of Harasta.
A Westerner living in the Kfar Souseh district of Damascus said police and Assad loyalists attacked protesters as they left a mosque. “They beat them with electric batons and with sticks that had nails sticking out,” said the witness.
Residents and activists reported demonstrations in the coastal town of Banias, the port of Tartous, Douma, Tel and the town of al-Salamia east of Hama. In several cities they chanted: “Christians and Muslims, we want freedom.”
A video posted on an opposition website showed a protester telling a cheering crowd: “We want our freedom whether they like it or not, either freedom or death. We will not stop.”
In Deraa, protesters echoed the slogans that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia and challenged others across the Arab world: “The people want the overthrow of the regime.”
Deraa’s Sunni Muslim tribes resent the wealth and power amassed by the minority Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shi‘ite Islam to which Assad belongs.
Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Andrew Dobbie