AMMAN (Reuters) - Protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad swept into the capital Damascus on Friday for the first time since a growing wave of pro-democracy unrest began to put pressure on his 11-year rule.
Thousands of protesters marched elsewhere across the country despite a fierce crackdown and some political concessions announced by Assad in an attempt to quell spreading unrest.
Shouting “God, Syria, Freedom,” protesters repeated the same demand for democratic reform and freedoms across many cities.
In Damascus, security forces used batons and teargas to prevent thousands of protesters marching from several suburbs from reaching the main Abbasside Square.
“I counted 15 mukhabarat (secret police) busloads,” one witness said.
“They went into the alleyways just north of the square chasing protesters and yelling ‘You pimps, you infiltrators, you want freedom? We will give it to you’.”
A witness who accompanied marchers from the suburb of Harasta said thousands chanted “the people want the overthrow of the regime” and tore down posters of Assad along the route.
In Barzeh, another district of Damascus, rights campaigners said at least 20 people who marched in a separate protest were hospitalized from injuries sustained when secret police and irregular Assad loyalists attacked them with batons.
Assad’s use of force, mass arrests and accusations that armed groups have instigated the unrest, mixed with promises for reform and concessions to minority groups and conservative Muslims, have not placated protesters inspired by popular uprisings which toppled the leaders in Tunisia and Egypt.
On Thursday, he unveiled a new government, which has little power in the one-party state, and ordered the release of some detainees, a move one human rights lawyer said was a “drop in the ocean” compared to the thousands of political prisoners still held.
Nevertheless, protesters gathered in even larger numbers on the Muslim day of prayer.
Rights activists reported protests in the city of Deir al-Zor near the Iraqi border, the restive coastal city of Banias and the southern city of Deraa, where the first demonstrations began against the detention of teenagers who had scrawled revolutionary graffiti on school walls.
Protests also broke out in Latakia and Homs, where the authorities said one policeman was killed by demonstrators. Human rights campaigners said they did not have information about any deaths but security forces had attacked protesters.
In Deraa, “demonstrations came out from every mosque in the city, including the Omari mosque... The number of people is above 10,000 protesters so far,” an activist said by phone.
Rights groups say at least 200 people have been killed since the protests started. Authorities blame “infiltrators” for stirring up unrest at the bidding of outside players, including Lebanon and Islamist groups.
Syrian state television reported what it said were relatively small, peaceful demonstrations in several cities. Emergency law in force since the Baath Party swept to power in a coup in 1963 bans public gatherings of more than five people.
The protests entered their fifth week following a familiar pattern. The biggest gatherings — and the most bloody — have taken place after Friday prayers, often in defiance of concessions announced by authorities the day before.
The protests would have been unthinkable in a state known for its pervasive security apparatus before the wave of uprisings which have shaken the Arab world.
Al-Jazeera channel aired footage on Friday showing Syrian security forces beating with sticks, kicking and walking over detained protesters in the coastal city of Baida. It said the pictures were shot a few days ago.
Some of the tension has sectarian overtones in the mostly Sunni Muslim country ruled by minority Alawites, members of an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. Irregular forces loyal to Assad, known as “al-shabbiha,” killed four people in Banias on Sunday.
Assad has said Syria — which is at the heart of the Middle East conflict — was the target of a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife.
His father used similar language when he crushed a leftist and Islamist challenge to his iron rule in the 1980s.
“This is not 1982 Hama. The uprising is not confined to a single area,” a leading opposition figure said, referring to an attack by Hafez al-Assad’s forces to crush an armed revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama that killed up to 30,000 people.
The younger Assad’s promises of reform, including a salary increase for public workers and a reconsideration of emergency rule in place for 48 years, has been dismissed by protesters hungry for change.
His decision last Thursday to grant citizenship to tens of thousands of stateless Kurds, as well as announcements about lifting a ban on veiled teachers and closing Syria’s sole casino, failed to prevent protests erupting the next day.
The West, which had been trying to coax Syria away from its anti-Israeli alliance with Iran and support for militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, has urged Assad to refrain from violence.
A panel drafting anti-terrorism legislation to replace emergency law is expected to complete its work by April 25. But critics say the new law will probably grant the state much of the same powers contained in the current legislation.
Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Writing by Dominic Evans and Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Michael Roddy