AMMAN (Reuters) - Syria’s army beefed up its presence in the southern city of Deraa, a focal point of bloody protests across the country, and soldiers took to the streets in a northern port where tensions are rising, residents said on Sunday.
The protests, which started in Deraa eight days ago, pose the most serious challenge to the 48-year rule of the Baath Party, and its leader, President Bashar al-Assad.
The demonstrations, in which protesters in some towns set fire to ruling party headquarters, would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago in the tightly controlled Arab country.
The army has so far taken a secondary role to secret police and special forces that have been sent to the city to try to quell more than a week of protests in which at least 55 people have been killed in and around Deraa, a rights group said.
The protesters have called for political freedoms and an end to corruption, but they have also directed their wrath at Assad, and torched a statue of late President Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria with an iron fist for 30 years until his death in 2000.
Security forces had fired on protesters on Friday in Deraa and there were reports of more shootings in other parts of Syria. Authorities have blamed the violence on “armed gangs.”
The unrest spread to the heavily fortified main port city of Latakia, where, according to a Syrian official source, twelve people — including security forces, civilians and “armed elements” — have been killed in two days of clashes.
Latakia is a mostly Sunni city but also has many Shi’ite residents from the Alawite sect who have moved into the city from nearby mountains over the past several decades.
A resident of Latakia said soldiers took to the streets of the city on Saturday night to help secret police and security forces control the city after confrontations between Alawite and Sunni youth.
“Decades of pent up feelings are generating these confrontations. But this not a mass Sunni-Alawite strife. Cooler heads are prevailing in Latakia,” the resident said.
He said no tanks or troop carriers were to be seen and the army was restricting its presence to soldiers on foot.
“There is a feeling in Latakia that the presence of disciplined troops is necessary to keep order. We do not want looting,” he added.
An official source said security forces had not fired at protesters in Latakia but that an armed group had taken over rooftops and fired on citizens and security forces, killing five people since Friday.
In an attempt to placate protesters, Assad freed 260 prisoners on Saturday and earlier in the week made a rare public pledge to implement reforms, such as “studying” an end to emergency law and proposing draft laws that would grant greater freedoms in the media and the formation of political parties.
But protesters did not seem to be mollified by the promises and in Deraa, at least, they have called for the “downfall of the regime,” a refrain heard in uprisings across the Arab world which have unseated the entrenched rulers of Tunisia and Egypt.
Syrian authorities said on Saturday the country was the target of a “project to sow sectarian strife.”
Syria’s establishment is dominated by members of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, a fact that causes resentment among the Sunni Muslims who make up some three-quarters of the population.
Demonstrations in support of Assad have also take place in
Damascus and other cities, where thousands of Assad’s loyalists marched or and drove around, waving flags, to proclaim their allegiance to the Baath party.
A Lebanese security source told Reuters that Syrian border police were stopping a number of Syrians entering from Lebanon.
In Beirut, a Syrian protester was slightly wounded when unknown assailants fired a few gunshots at a pro-Assad rally.
Writing by Yara Bayoumy and Khaled Yacoub Oweis; Editing by Louise Ireland