Protests hit Druze city in Syria for fourth day

AMMAN (Reuters) - Hundreds of Syrians in the mainly Druze city of Sweida took to the streets for a fourth day on Wednesday, protesting worsening economic conditions and demanding the downfall of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

Residents said demonstrators near a main square of the southwestern city called for Assad’s overthrow, echoing chants at the start of pro-democracy protests in 2011 that were violently crushed by security forces and sparked a violent, nine-year conflict.

Syria is in the throes of a deep economic crisis that has seen its currency hit a record 3,000 Syrian pounds to the dollar earlier this week in a rapidly accelerating free-fall. It traded at 47 pounds to the dollar at the start of the conflict.

Protests since Sunday have also called for an end to rampant corruption and the pullout of Iranian militias and Russian troops, whose support has helped Assad regain most of the territory once in hands of rebels seeking to end his rule.

“Protesters called for freedom and toppling of the regime as a result of popular anger over the deteriorating economic, social, security and political situation,” said Noura al Basha, a resident and activist.

For the first time since the protests began, dozens of government supporters organised a counter demonstration in front of the provincial government offices, where they criticised a wave of new, tighter U.S. sanctions, known as the Caesar Act, which takes effect later this month.

Syrian authorities blame Western sanctions for widespread hardship among ordinary residents, where the currency collapse has led to soaring prices and people struggling to afford food and basic supplies.

State media made no mention of the opposition protest.

Sweida city had been spared the unrest seen in other parts of Syria since the start of the conflict and remained in government hands.

The majority Druze population have long resisted being drawn into the Syrian conflict that pits mainly Sunni rebels against Assad’s rule.

Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Lincoln Feast.