DARAA, Syria — Protesters took the streets in a number of Syrian cities Friday to demand major change, dismissing promises of reforms by the authorities as rights activists reported deaths in police shootings.
Demonstrations were reported in Damascus, Banias, Latakia, Hama, Dahel and Homs, and the southern town of Daraa, with videos purporting to be of the rallies surfacing on YouTube. The authenticity of the videos could not be verified.
Human rights activists said police fired on protesters in the southern village of Sanamen as they were heading to nearby Daraa, hub of the protests, for the funeral of two people killed earlier in the week during clashes with security forces.
“Seventeen protesters were killed in a shooting in the village of Sanamen as they were headed toward Daraa,” located 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of Damascus, a human rights activist told AFP, requesting anonymity.
Another activist in Daraa put the death toll at 13.
The news could not be confirmed by independent sources or hospitals in the area.
Hundreds of protesters marched Friday from the landmark Omayyed mosque through the centre of Damascus’ Old City chanting “Daraa is Syria” and “We will sacrifice ourselves for Syria” before police moved in.
Supporters of President Bashar al-Assad shouted back: “God, Syria and Bashar, that’s all” as convoys in support of Assad took to the streets.
At least five protesters were taken away by officers in plain clothes, according to an AFP correspondent.
In Dahel, south of Damascus, around 300 people marched after Friday prayers, chanting: “Dahel and Daraa will not be humiliated.”
As evening fell, convoys of supporters of Assad began driving the streets of Damascus while state television showed similar rallies being staged in other cities, including Latakia and Hama.
“Damascus and other Syrian governorates witnessed popular processions for the second consecutive day in support of the decrees and decisions issued yesterday and to reaffirm national unity,” the official news agency SANA said.
Syria, the latest Arab country to witness an uprising against a long-running autocratic regime, has been hit by unprecedented protests demanding major change after almost five decades of Baath party rule.
Friday’s rallies come hours after the government announced a string of major reforms including the possibility of ending emergency rule that has been in place since 1963.
Assad on Thursday ordered the release of all activists detained this month and the ruling Baath party had agreed to a string of reforms including studying the lifting of emergency laws in force since 1963.
Presidential adviser Buthaina Shaaban also said a Baath meeting, chaired by Assad Thursday, had agreed to look into a new media law granting “greater transparency and freedom” and was forming a committee to discuss with Daraa residents the week’s events and to sanction those responsible.
But activists had vowed to push on with rallies against “injustice and repression” after weekly Muslim prayers, dismissing reform pledges announced by the authorities.
A Daraa-based activist contacted from Nicosia by AFP said security forces on Friday opened fire on protesters who gathered near the home in Daraa of the town governor, who was fired from the post earlier this week.
Other eyewitnesses, contacted by telephone, said demonstrators had dragged down a statue of Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president, prompting security forces to open fire.
Daraa had been calm on Friday morning with the army gone and children playing on the streets, although journalists were ordered to leave the city ahead of weekly prayers which have often been followed by protests.
AFP reporters saw soldiers deploy on the roads leading to Daraa, bringing with them sandbags, as they were escorted out of the town.
Facebook group The Syria Revolution 2011, which has attracted almost 78,000 fans, had called for “Day of Dignity” at mosques across Syria, after a week of deadly protests in the south.