DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Unrest spread in southern Syria on Monday with hundreds of people demonstrating against the government in three towns near the main city of Deraa, but authorities did not use force to quell the latest protests.
Security forces killed four civilians in demonstrations that erupted last week in Deraa, in the most serious challenge to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule since the 45-year-old succeeded his father 11 years ago.
An 11-year-old child died overnight from inhaling tear gas fired by security forces, activists said.
“This is peaceful, peaceful. God, Syria, freedom,” chanted the protesters in Jassem, an agricultural town 30 km (20 miles) west of Deraa.
Demonstrations also erupted in the towns of Nawa and Inkhel during which marchers held placards with the word “freedom.”
Leading opposition figure Haitham al-Maleh said on Monday a desire for democratic reform was near-universal in Syria.
“The revolution is at the door and the regime is still flirting with change,” said Maleh, an 80-year-old lawyer and former judge who has spent his life peacefully resisting the ruling Baath Party’s monopoly on power, much of it from prison.
Independent figures have long urged Assad to curb security apparatus, initiate rule of law, release thousands of political prisoners, allow freedom of expression and reveal the fate of tens of thousands who disappeared during repression in the 1980s.
The ruling Baath Party has banned opposition and enforced emergency laws since 1963.
The protests have demanded freedom and an end to corruption and repression, but not the overthrow of Assad.
The authorities appeared to adopt less heavy-handed tactics, choosing not to intervene against protesters, although at least five people were arrested on Monday.
France, which has been a strong proponent of rehabilitating Syria’s ruling elite in the West, urged Damascus “to respond to the Syrian people’s aspirations with reforms.”
The United States condemned the violence.
“We call on the Syrian government to allow demonstrations to take place peacefully. Those responsible for the violence over the weekend must be held accountable,” said Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the White House National Security Council.
In Deraa, hundreds of black-uniformed security forces wielding AK-47 assault rifles lined the streets but did not confront thousands of mourners who marched at the funeral of 23-year-old Raed al-Kerad, a protester killed in Deraa.
“God, Syria, freedom. The people want the overthrow of corruption,” they chanted. The slogan is a play on the words “the people want the overthrow of the regime,” the rallying cry of revolutions that overthrew the veteran rulers of Tunisia and Egypt.
Security forces opened fire last Friday on civilians taking part in a peaceful protest in Deraa to demand the release of 15 children detained for writing protest graffiti.
Authorities released the children on Monday in a sign they were hoping to defuse tension in the border town, which witnessed more protests after Friday’s crackdown.
Protesters have also demanded the release of political prisoners, the dismantling of secret police headquarters in Deraa, the dismissal of the governor, a public trial for those responsible for the killings and the scrapping of regulations requiring secret police permission to sell and buy property.
Deraa’s secret police is headed by a cousin of Assad, who has emerged in the last four years from isolation by the West over Syria’s role in Lebanon and Iraq and backing for mostly Palestinian militant groups.
Assad has strengthened Syria’s ties with Shi‘ite Iran as he sought to improve relations with the United States and strike a peace deal with Israel to regain the occupied Golan Heights, lost in the 1967 Middle East war.
But he left the authoritarian system he inherited intact.
His father sent troops to the city of Hama in 1982 to crush the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, killing thousands in the conservative religious city.
Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi and Leigh Thomas in Paris; editing by Janet Lawrence