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SYRIA: Government forces open fire on protesters

March 25, 2011 |  9:46 am

Syria protest 
Government forces opened fire on protesters in several towns as thousands took to the streets across Syria on Friday chanting "Freedom" in support of an uprising in the southern city of Dara, news reports said.

An activist told the Associated Press that witnesses had reported one demonstrator shot dead by security forces in the coastal city of Latakia and another killed in the central city of Homs.

There were reports of more casualties in Sanamein and in nearby Dara, where a witness told CNN that protesters burned a picture of President Bashar Assad and attacked a statue of his father. The accounts could not be independently confirmed.

In the capital, Damascus, pro- and anti-government crowds clashed outside the historic Umayyad mosque, hitting each other with leather belts, AP reported. 

The unrest erupted in the last week when residents of Dara, a Roman-era city near the Jordanian border, demanded the release of 20 political detainees. Inspired by protests in other Arab countries, their demands soon swelled to include an end to the government's secret police organization, which is headed in Dara by Assad's cousin.

At least 15 people were killed in a deadly crackdown Wednesday in Dara. Hoping to head off more protests, presidential advisor Bouthaina Shaaban announced a number of reforms Thursday.

She said the government was drafting a law that would allow opposition parties to operate and loosen restrictions on news media. She also promised wage increases and health insurance for public servants. And she pledged to consider ending the emergency law in place since 1963 that has allowed the government to detain anyone without a warrant or a trial.

-- Alexandra Zavis

Photo: Pro- and anti-government protesters clash after Friday prayers in Damascus, Syria. Credit: Muzaffar Salman / Associated Press

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