SAQBA, Syria (Reuters) - A small green, white and black rebel flag waving at the entrance to the Damascus suburb of Saqba showed it was no longer under the control of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
“Assad’s thugs are not here. We kicked them out three days ago,” said a masked fighter.
His comrades in the Free Syrian Army were the only forces in the town of 95,000 and nearby suburbs of Harasta, Hamoureya, Kfarbatna and Ain Tarma, he said.
Dozens of masked fighters were positioned at every street corner, armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades in a powerful statement of defiance just a few miles (kilometers) from the heart of the Syrian capital.
Assad is battling a 10-month uprising which has become increasingly militarized as rebels and army deserters turn against his forces and take over - often only briefly - towns, districts or swathes of territory.
The streets of Saqba were deserted and few shops were open on Friday, a weekend in Syria and the main day for anti-Assad demonstrations.
“We are here to protect the protesters. People should protest freely and we will not let the Assadis fire at them. We will block them when they get here,” said Colonel Osama, who introduced himself as the leader of the Free Army.
One man carrying an RPG said all the fighters were army defectors who had taken their weapons with them when they deserted. They were now confronting security forces who they said used mortars against the town.
“They tried to occupy the city. It was a nightmare when they were here, they robbed our houses and our shops. They terrified us and terrified our women. We had to fight back,” said another masked fighter, speaking with evident pride.
As the fighters entered the newly renamed Martyrs’ Square, accompanying a small group of foreign journalists, they were warmly welcomed by people who carried them on their shoulders and waved the green, white and black flag which dates to before Assad’s Baath Party seized power nearly 50 years ago.
Women peered through windows of bullet-pocked houses at hundreds of men chanting in the square. Some veiled women applauded from rooftops, and children joined the demonstration.
Anger against the 46-year-old Assad ran high. Many had stories of brothers or cousins killed or detained by his security forces.
“We want Bashar under ground,” chanted protesters.
“I am here to say down with Assad. We do not want him. I do not want him...because he kills people,” one demonstrator said.
The rebel forces appeared in total control and people heaped praise on them. “God protect the Free Army,” “The Syrian army is a traitor,” and “The people want a flight ban,” they chanted, referring to calls for a Libya-style no-fly zone.
People complained of electricity shortages and some said supplies were short.
“But here we are all one hand. My food is for the whole town. We are sharing everything,” said one resident in his 50s.
People were eager to tell their stories, but some were troubled to see the journalists. “Now after you leave they will come and massacre us all. Why did you come?” shouted a man.
A group of angry teenagers shouted: “Do you see the Salafis?” referring to foreign-backed Islamists who authorities blame for killing 2,000 soldiers and police. “Do you see the terrorist? ...Tell the world we are suffering.”
“The people want to execute the president,” people chanted.
There was no sign of security forces across the town, whose littered streets, closed shops and bullet-marked walls and windows offered evidence of the strife.
Residents said there had been no business in Saqba, known for its workshops producing wooden furniture, for the last two months. “Every day we protest,” said one.
People described what they said were scenes of horror when Syrian security forces had been in the town, arriving without notice and firing at people.
“They killed us without discrimination, my brother Salem Reehan who was 52 with five children was killed four months ago with his friends. He did not do anything,” said Mohammad Qassem.
“His wife was giving birth at the hospital when she received the news of his death.”
A masked Free Army fighter said 12 tanks tried to enter the town three days earlier. “We stopped them. We fought them and we taught them a lesson,” he said.
“Any minute now they might try to invade. We are ready for them, we will not let them enter here. We will fight till the last man and child.”
The residents proudly say that their town was the second to revolt after the uprising against Assad erupted in the southern town of Deraa in March last year.
“We want the fall of the regime, a fly ban and then in one week we can control Syria,” another resident said.
One man said that security forces were still holding bodies of rebels which they had not delivered to their families.
“They killed Jamal Qauately who was 48 years old and they still have his body for four months. They are asking for 200 thousand pounds (nearly $3,000) to return the body,” he said.
A funeral procession for Mazen Abu al Dahab, a 23-year-old activist killed by a sniper on Thursday, toured the square and people chanted for the free army.
Suddenly the crowd got hold of two men and started beating them and accusing them of being “security agents.” It was unclear what happened to them.
As journalists left the town they were turned back several times by Free Army fighters, saying snipers were operating in the area.
A few hours after they left, activists said fighting erupted in the nearby suburbs of Zamalka and Ain Tarma.
Editing by Dominic Evans and Angus MacSwan