SYRIA PROTESTS: Protesters killed in Syrian town 8Apr11 April 9, 2011

Aljazeera -  8 April 2011

Syrian security forces have killed at least 15 demonstrators in the southern city of Daraa, amid fresh protests against the rule of Bashar al-Assad, hospital sources and witnesses told the Reuters news agency.

The deaths occurred after Friday prayers when security forces opened fire with rubber-coated bullets and live rounds to disperse stone-throwing protesters, a witness told Al Jazeera.

In the east, thousands of ethnic Kurds also demonstrated for reform despite the Syrian president’s offer this week to ease rules which bar many Kurds from citizenship.

Separate protests erupted in the western port city of Latakia, Tartus, Baniyas, Homs – near the Lebanese border - and in Edlib, in the northwest of the country. Gunfire was also heard in Harasta, a suburb of the capital, Damascus.

Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin, reporting on Friday from Douma, another Damascus suburb, said there were no security forces visible in the area.

But “it’s a new situation in Syria”, she said. “We saw thousands of people taking to the streets after Friday prayers, from all walks of life: young and old, professionals and not professionals, educated, not educated, there were some Islamists, some nationalists.

At least 10 people were killed last Friday in Douma, seen as another focal point of protests where demonstrators have set up a vigil outside the mosque.

Greater freedoms

Popular demonstrations calling for greater freedoms have shaken Syria for the last three weeks.

Al-Assad has responded with a blend of force against protesters, and reform gestures, most recently aimed at ethnic Kurds.

In the northeastern city of Qamishli, Kurdish youths chanted: “No Kurd, no Arab, Syrian people are one. We salute the martyrs of Daraa.”

Demonstrations have raised concerns that unrest could fuel ethnic and sectarian tensions in the country.

Friday demonstrations, which online activists have this week dubbed the “Friday of Steadfastness”, have tended to be marked by the largest protests against al-Assad’s 11 years in power.

In previous weeks security forces have opened fire, killing dozens.

In Daraa, people first demonstrated last month against the arrest of children who had scrawled pro-democracy graffiti inspired by the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings on school walls.

Sunni Muslim tribes there resent the wealth and power amassed by the minority Alawites, the offshoot sect of Shia Islam to which Assad belongs.

Mobile phone lines had been cut or were restricted over the last two days, the residents said.

Protesters chanted: “The people want the overthrow of the regime”, an echo of slogans elsewhere in the Arab world.

The Baath Party, in power since a 1963 coup and run by al-Assad’s father, Hafez, until his death in 2000, has tolerated no dissent and has used emergency law to justify arbitrary arrests. A prominent demand of the protesters is to repeal the law.

Investigation ordered

Al-Assad has ordered a panel to draft anti-terrorism legislation to replace emergency law, but critics say it will probably grant the state much of the same powers.

He also ordered an investigation into the civilian deaths in Daraa and Latakia last month.

Mazen Darwish, an activist in Damascus, told Al Jazeera that the pledged reforms were positive but not enough.

“It’s not about this problem or that problem. It’s about transforming Syria from dictatorship to democracy,” he said.

“To change the constitution, open up political life, to have free press and political parties and lift the emergency law.”

More than 70 people have been killed in the protests, which have been inspired by popular uprisings across the Arab world.

Al-Assad’s overture to Kurds who make up about 10 per cent of Syria’s 20 million population came after reports that authorities had released 48 Kurdish prisoners.

Under al-Assad, Syria has been Iran’s closet Arab ally, a major player in Lebanon and a supporter of armed groups such as the Hamas and Hezbollah.

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