DERAA, Syria (Reuters) - Syrian security forces have killed six people in two days of anti-government protests in the key port city of Latakia, reformist activists living abroad told Reuters on Saturday.
President Bashar al-Assad, facing his deepest crisis in 11 years in power after security forces fired on protesters on Friday in the southern town of Deraa, freed 260 prisoners in an apparent bid to placate a swelling protest movement.
But the reports from Latakia, a security hub in the northwest, suggested unrest was still spreading.
There were reports of more than 20 deaths in protests on Friday, mainly in the south, and medical officials say dozens have now been killed over the past week around Deraa alone.
Such demonstrations would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago in this most tightly controlled of Arab countries.
Bouthaina Shaaban, a senior adviser to Assad, told the official news agency that Syria was “the target of a project to sow sectarian strife to compromise Syria and (its) unique coexistence model.”
Syrian rights activist Ammar Qurabi told Reuters in Cairo: “There have been at least two killed (in Latakia) today after security forces opened fire on protesters trying to torch the Baath party building.”
“I have been in touch with people in Syria since last night, using three cell phones and constantly sitting online. Events are moving at an extremely fast pace.”
Exiled dissident Maamoun al-Homsi told Reuters by telephone from Canada: “I have the name of four martyrs who have fallen in Latakia yesterday.”
The state news agency quoted a government source as saying security forces had not fired at protesters but that an armed group had taken over rooftops and fired on citizens and security forces, killing five people since Friday.
In Damascus and other cities, thousands of Assad’s supporters marched or and drove around, waving flags, to proclaim their allegiance to the Baath party.
The unrest in Syria came to a head after police detained more than a dozen schoolchildren for scrawling graffiti inspired by pro-democracy protests across the Arab world.
President Assad made a public pledge on Thursday to look into granting greater freedom and lifting emergency laws dating back to 1963, but failed to dampen the protests.
On Saturday a human rights lawyer said 260 prisoners, mostly Islamists, had been freed after serving at least three-quarters of their sentences.
Amnesty International put the death toll in and around Deraa in the past week at 55 at least. In Sanamein, near Deraa, 20 protesters were shot dead on Friday, a resident told Al Jazeera.
One unidentified doctor told CNN television that snipers had been shooting people in Deraa from atop government buildings.
“We had 30 people got shot in the head and the neck and we had hundreds of people got wounded,” he said.
“We put two wounded in an ambulance sending them to the hospital. We had security forces stop the ambulances, get the wounded outside the ambulance and shoot them, and said: ‘Now you can take them to the hospital’.”
Some of the dead protesters were buried on Saturday in Deraa and nearby villages, residents said.
Several thousand mourners prayed over the body of 13-year-old Seeta al-Akrad in Deraa’s Omari mosque, scene of an attack by security forces earlier in the week.
Police were not in evidence when they marched to a cemetery chanting: “The people want the downfall of the regime,” a refrain heard in uprisings from Tunisia to Egypt and Yemen.
Emboldened by the lack of security presence, the mourners also chanted: “Strike, strike, until the regime falls!”
Abu Jassem, a Deraa resident, said: “We were under a lot of pressure from the oppressive authority, but now when you pass by (the security forces), nobody utters a word. They don’t dare talk to the people. The people have no fear any more.”
In nearby Tafas, mourners in the funeral procession of Kamal Baradan, killed on Friday in Deraa, set fire to Baath party offices and the police station, residents said.
There were also protests on Friday in Damascus and in Hama, a northern city where in 1982 the forces of president Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, killed thousands of people and razed much of the old quarter to put down an armed uprising by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
Syria’s establishment is dominated by members of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam, a fact that causes resentment among the Sunni Muslims who make up some three-quarters of the population. Latakia is mostly Sunni Muslim but has significant numbers of Alawites.
Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, said sectarian friction made many in the establishment wary of giving ground to demands for political freedoms and economic reforms.
“They are a basically reviled minority, the Alawites, and if they lose power, if they succumb to popular revolution, they will be hanging from the lamp posts,” he said.
“They have absolutely no incentive to back off.”
Asked if there could be a crackdown on the scale of Hama, Faysal Itani, deputy head of Middle East and North Africa Forecasting at Exclusive Analysis, said this was a “real risk.”
“For a minority regime this is an existential struggle,” he said. “If the unrest continues at this pace, the Syrian army is not going to be able to maintain cohesion.”
Many believed a tipping point had been reached.
“The Syrian regime is attempting to make promises such as a potential lifting of the state of emergency, which has been in place since 1963, a record in the Arab world,” Bitar said.
“But if this happens it will be the end of a whole system, prisoners will have to be released, the press will be free ... when this kind of regime considers relaxing its grip, it also knows that everything could collapse.”
Central Bank Governor Adeeb Mayaleh said the central bank was ready to supply the market with foreign currency liquidity, hinting at rising demand for U.S. dollars.
Syria has a close alliance with Iran and links to the Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas and the Lebanese Shi‘ite political and military group Hezbollah.Its allies in the region have yet to comment on the unrest.
“Syria is Iran’s main ally in the Arab world. A fall of the regime would have consequences for Hezbollah and Hamas ... I‘m not sure that the region’s big powers would allow such a big shock,” said Karim Emile Bitar, research fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.
Syrian border police were stopping a number of Syrians entering from Lebanon, a Lebanese security source said.
Reporting by a Reuters correspondent in Deraa, Yara Bayoumy in Beirut, Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Lionel Laurent in Paris, William Maclean in London; Dina Zayed in Cairo; Writing by Peter Millership and Kevin Liffey; editing by Ralph Boulton