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Deaths as Syrian Forces Fire on Protesters

DOHA and DAMASCUS, Mar 25 2011 - Syrian security forces have opened fire on anti-government protesters in the city of Sanamin near Daraa, killing at least 20 people, according to one witness.

“There are more than 20 martyrs …. they [security forces] opened fire haphazardly,” the witness told Al Jazeera.

Rula Amin, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Damascus, said Syrian forces apparently fired after protesters set fire to a statue of the late president, Hafer al-Assad.

Reuters reported that heavy gunfire could be heard in the southern city of Daraa, the focal point for demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in recent days.

Three people were also reported killed in Mouadamieh district of Damascus after a crowd confronted a procession of cars driven by supporters of president Bashar al-Assad, residents said, according to Reuters.

Regime supporters take to streets

But regime supporters also took to the streets in sizeable numbers on Friday, waving flags and images of al-Assad. A large crowd gathered in the evening outside Al Jazeera’s bureau in Damascus, demanding to be shown on the network.

Reem Haddad, from the Syrian information ministry, told Al Jazeera that security forces had been given the order not to shoot at protesters “no matter what happens”.

“But things took on a different hue because inside these peaceful demonstrations there was another group of people who were armed … and were shooting at the security forces and were shooting at other citizens in Daraa. At the end of the day this became a matter of national security.”

But an eyewitness told Al Jazeera that “there were no people carrying arms among demonstrators”.

“What happened in the square … was live ammunition, I was present myself and I saw the youth and other young demonstrators leading a peaceful demonstration.

“They were chanting slogans calling for freedom and transparency and an end [to] corruption.”

‘Day of dignity’

The latest clashes come after protesters demanding greater freedom called for a “day of dignity” on Friday following a week-long crackdown by pro-regime forces that has left dozens dead.

At least 200 people marched in the centre of Damascus after Friday prayers in support of the people of Daraa, scene of protests against Baath Party rule, Reuters reported.

Protests spread across Syria, with rallies also held in the central city of Hama and in Tel, near Damascus. According to our correspondent, numbers at these rallies ranged from hundreds of people to thousands.

Daraa, the main city of southern Syria, has become a flashpoint for protests. Officials have been on the defensive after protesters in the southern city were shot dead by police.

The crackdown has already attracted the attention of the United Nations with human rights commissioner Navi Pillay calling for an investigation and an immediate halt to violence, a message echoed by Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General.

The U.S. on Friday called on the Syrian government to end the use of violence against protesters and the arrests of human rights activists.

“We strongly condemn the Syrian government’s attempts to repress and intimidate demonstrators,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

Emergency rule

Syria has announced that it would “study” ending emergency rule – in place since 1963 – and look into legalising political parties, a presidential adviser has said.

“I am happy to announce to you the decisions made by the Arab Baath party under the auspices of President Bashar al-Assad … which include … studying the possibility of lifting the emergency law and licensing political parties,” Buthaina Shaaban, the Syrian president’s media adviser, said on Thursday.

The current emergency law allows people to be arrested without warrants and imprisoned without trial.

Soon after the promises of reforms were made, the prisoners detained in Daraa during the protests were released. There were also reports of orders being issued by the president for the army to pull out of Daraa.

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