Middle East

Syria turmoil: Fresh protests erupt

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Media captionWatch: Unverified amateur footage purportedly showing protesters in Deraa on Friday tearing down a statue

Fresh protests have flared in Syria at the end of a week that has seen dozens of demonstrators killed.

Offices of the ruling Baath party were burned down in the southern town of Tafas and coastal town of Latakia, witnesses said, while hundreds renewed demonstrations in Deraa.

The authorities earlier released more than 200 political prisoners in Damascus, a UK-based rights group said.

The protests are a serious challenge to President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The US and the UN had condemned the Syrian government following reports that troops fired on peaceful protesters on Friday.

However, the political and information adviser to President Bashar al-Assad, Bouthaina Shaaban, has told the BBC it was not security forces that had shot protesters but "armed groups" firing on civilians indiscriminately.

'Downfall'

The biggest protests on Saturday were in Tafas, 18km (11 miles) north of the city of Deraa, which is close to the Jordan border and which has become the centre of the challenge to the 11-year rule of President Assad.

Thousands took to the streets in Tafas to bury three protesters who witnesses said had been killed by security forces on Friday.

Reports of the deaths of protesters in Syria cannot be independently confirmed.

The witnesses said the protesters chanted anti-government slogans and burned the Baath HQ and a police station.

In Deraa on Saturday, hundreds of protesters climbed on to the rubble of a statue of ex-President Hafez al-Assad that was torn down on Friday and resumed anti-government chants.

Some were holding cardboard signs reading "the people want the downfall of the regime", witnesses said.

A human rights activist, Ammar Qurabi, told Associated Press news agency there were also protests in the coastal town of Latakia, with another Baath party office set on fire.

A Syrian official told Agence France-Presse news agency that two people were killed by unidentified snipers in Latakia on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Ms Shaaban told BBC Arabic there were "foreign schemes" aimed at destabilising Syria and that a number of foreign nationals had been detained.

Image caption Supporters of President Assad staged large counter-protests in Damascus on Friday

She said Syria respected the rights of people to protest peacefully.

Ms Shaaban also said political reform had been under discussion in Syria for some time and that the authorities intended to put constitutional and party reforms before the people in a referendum as soon as possible.

Earlier, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 200 inmates, mostly Islamists, were freed from Damascus' Saidnaya prison.

However, reports about the total number involved differ, with another human rights activist being quoted by Reuters as saying that 70 political prisoners were freed.

The Syrian government has so far made no official comment on the issue but Ms Shaaban said she would be surprised if her country had hundreds of such detainees.

Dozens of people have been killed in protests this week, rights activists and witnesses say, sparking demonstrations on Friday in towns and cities across Syria, including the capital, Damascus.

In Damascus, hundreds marched on King Faisal Street chanting: "Peaceful, Peaceful, God, Syria, Freedom." This protest was broken up by security forces and many were arrested, reports said.

Supporters of President Assad staged large counter-protests and clashes erupted between the two sides.

Other towns witnessing protests on Friday included Tall and Hama.