DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Protests spread across Syria on Friday, challenging the 40-year rule of the Assad family after their forces killed dozens of demonstrators in the south.
There was more bloodshed after weekly prayers, with reports of at least 23 dead, including for the first time in the capital Damascus. Information on casualties was limited and President Bashar al-Assad’s authorities restricted journalists’ movements.
In Deraa, tens of thousands marched in funerals for some of the dead, chanting “Freedom.” In a central square, a Reuters correspondent saw protesters haul down a statue of Assad’s father, late president Hafez al-Assad, before security men in plain clothes opened fire with automatic rifles from buildings.
The crowd of some 3,000 scattered under volleys of bullets and tear gas. The reporter saw some wounded helped into cars and ambulances. It was unclear how many, if any, were killed.
By evening, however, security forces appeared to have melted away, a crowd of protesters gathered again in the main square and set a government building on fire, witnesses said.
“The barrier of fear is broken. This is a first step on the road to toppling the regime,” said Ibrahim, a middle-aged lawyer in Deraa who compared events to the uprisings in Egypt and other Arab states. “We have reached the point of no return.”
After pulling down the statue, in a scene that recalled the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 by U.S. troops, some protesters poured fuel into the broken cast and set it alight.
In the town of Sanamein, which is in the same southern area of the country as Deraa, local residents said 20 people were killed when gunmen opened fire on a crowd outside a building used by military intelligence -- part of an extensive apparatus of security used by Syria’s ruling Baath party since 1963.
Deraa is a bastion of tribes belonging to Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, who resent the power and wealth amassed by an elite from the Alawite minority to which the Assads belong.
Amnesty International put the death toll there in the past week at 55 at least, though local people have spoken of twice that number before Friday. Hospital officials said at least 37 were killed when security forces destroyed a pro-democracy protest camp at a mosque in the city on Wednesday.
In Hama, in the center of the country, where the elder Assad put down an Islamist revolt in 1982 at a cost of many thousands of lives, residents said people streamed through the streets after weekly prayers chanting “Freedom is ringing out!” -- a slogan heard in uprisings sweeping the rest of the Arab world.
The United States, France and Britain, which a week ago launched a U.N.-backed air campaign in Libya to protect rebels, all urged Assad to refrain from violence.
But analysts see little chance that heavily armed Syria, which is wrapped in an anti-Western, anti-Israel alliance with Iran and sits within a web of conflicts across the region, may face the sort of foreign intervention seen in North Africa.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon telephoned Assad to urge “maximum restraint” by a government which has long been accused of taking extreme measures to suppress dissent.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s spokesman said: “We strongly condemn the Syrian government’s attempts to repress and intimidate demonstrators.”
“For now, this remains a geographically isolated tragedy. But it also constitutes an ominous precedent with widespread popular resonance that could soon be repeated elsewhere,” the International Crisis Group think-tank said.
A spokeswoman for Assad’s information ministry denied that accusation and said some protesters had been carrying weapons.
Thousands of Assad’s supporters waved flags, marched and drove in cars around Damascus and other cities to proclaim their allegiance to the Baath party and to Assad, whose father took power in a coup in 1970.
In Deraa, young men announced their rejection of the rulers by replacing the word “Bashar” with the word “Freedom” in a traditional loyalty slogan -- “God, Syria and Freedom Only!” the
Security men, on alert across the country during weekly prayers at mosques, quickly stifled a small demonstration in the capital Damascus. They hauled away dozens among a crowd of some 200 who chanted their support for people of Deraa.
But later in the day, residents of the Damascus suburb of Mouadamieh said three people were killed when a crowd confronted a procession of cars driven by Assad supporters. In Tel, near Damascus, about 1,000 people rallied and chanted slogans calling relatives of Assad “thieves.”
Unrest in Deraa came to a head this week after police detained more than a dozen schoolchildren for writing graffiti against the government. In Damascus, two small protests by a few dozen people shouting slogans were broken up last week.
Among the targets of anger among crowds on Friday were Maher al-Assad, a brother of the president and head of the Republican Guard, a special security force, and Rami Makhlouf, a cousin who runs big businesses and is accused by Washington of corruption.
Assad’s anti-Israel stance has protected him against some of the criticism aimed, for example, at Egypt’s deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, who promoted peace with the Jewish state.
Demonstrators in Deraa turned that hostility to Israel against the government on Friday, highlighting the use of force against Syrian civilians and the failure of the Assads to take back the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in a 1967 war.
“Maher, you coward!” they chanted. “Send your troops to liberate the Golan!”
Assad had promised on Thursday to look into granting Syrians greater freedoms in an attempt to defuse the outbreak of popular demands for political freedoms and an end to corruption.
He also pledged to look at ending an emergency law in place since 1963 and made an offer of large public pay rises.
But demonstrators said they did not believe the promises.
As an aide was announcing a possible end to 48 years of emergency rule, a human rights group said a leading pro-democracy activist, Mazen Darwish, had been arrested.
On January 31, Assad had said there was no chance political upheavals then shaking Tunisia and Egypt would spread to Syria.
Additional reporting by a Reuters correspondent in Deraa and Yara Bayoumy in Beirut; writing by Alastair Macdonald; editing by Jon Boyle