BEIRUT – Syrian security forces launched a harsh crackdown Friday on protesters calling for political freedoms, killing at least five people and marking the gravest unrest in years in one of the most repressive states in the Mideast, according to accounts from activists and social media.
Mazen Darwish, a prominent Syrian activist in Damascus, said at least five people were shot and killed when security forces tried to disperse hundreds of protesters in the southern town of Daraa, near the Jordanian border. He cited eyewitnesses and hospital officials at the scene.
Friday's violence happened during one of several demonstrations across the country in Homs, Banyas and the capital, Damascus. But only the Daraa protest turned deadly, Darwish said.
Serious disturbances in Syria would be a major expansion of the wave of unrest tearing through the Arab world for more than a month in the wake of pro-democracy uprisings that overthrew the autocratic leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. Syria, a predominantly Sunni country ruled by minority Alawites, has a history of brutally crushing dissent — including a notorious massacre in which President Hafez Assad crushed a Muslim fundamentalist uprising in the city of Hama in 1982, killing thousands.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was concerned about the reported deaths in Daraa and said the use of lethal force against peaceful demonstrators was unacceptable.
"The Secretary-General believes that, as elsewhere, it is the responsibility of the government in Syria to listen to the legitimate aspirations of the people and address them through inclusive political dialogue and genuine reforms, not repression," said his spokesman, Martin Nesirky.
On Friday, Syrian forces used water cannons, batons and gunfire to beat up protesters in Daraa. The violence began when a large group of people emerged from the Al-Omari mosque, marching and shouting slogans against corruption and calling for more political freedoms.
A human rights activist told The Associated Press that security forces cordoned the main hospital in Daraa where some of the wounded were being treated, preventing families from visiting the victims. He cited hospital workers, but spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals.
The government's TV channel and news agency said "infiltrators" in Daraa caused "chaos and riots" and smashed cars and public and private property before they attacked riot police. It said a similar demonstration in the coastal town of Banyas dispersed without incident.
Amateur video footage posted on YouTube and Twitter showed large groups of protesters in several cities, but the authenticity of the footage could not be independently confirmed.
A YouTube video claiming to be shot in Banyas showed several thousand demonstrators gathering around an old stone building with a Syrian flag fluttering from its roof. A cluster of men stood on its balcony with a loudspeaker. Amid chants of "Freedom!" and "There is only one God!," one man shouted out a list of protesters demands ranging from freedom of expression to allowing Muslim women with face veils to attend school.
In the capital, plainclothes security officers forcefully dispersed about a dozen protesters calling for more freedoms in the country, human rights activists said earlier in the day.
The activists said the protest occurred in the yard of Damascus' famous Ummayad Mosque shortly after Friday prayers. At least two protesters were detained, they said.
The protest was the third small rally broken up in Damascus this week.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, a 45-year-old British-trained eye doctor, inherited power from his father in 2000 after three decades of authoritarian rule. He has since moved slowly to lift Soviet-style economic restrictions, letting in foreign banks, throwing the doors open to imports and empowering the private sector.
The early years of his rule raised hopes of a freer society; salons where political and economic issues were openly debated sprang up across the country.
But the "Damascus Spring" as it came to be known was short-lived. In 2001, secret police began raiding the salons, jailing two lawmakers and scores of other activists in the years that followed.
In 2004, bloody clashes that began in the northeastern city of Qamishli between Syrian Kurds and security forces left at least 25 people dead and some 100 injured.
Although Assad keeps a tight lid on any form of political dissent, he is seen by many Arabs as one of the few leaders in the region willing to stand up to Israel.
Assad told The Wall Street Journal in February that Syria is insulated from the upheaval in the Arab world because he understands his people's needs and has united them in common cause against Israel.
Also Friday, eight Syrian human rights groups said a prosecutor had questioned and charged dozens of demonstrators with hurting the state's image.
The groups said the 32 activists denied the charges. They included four relatives of political prisoner Kamal Labawani, who is serving a 12-year prison sentence.
The activists were detained Wednesday when plainclothes security officers armed with batons dispersed a protest near the Interior Ministry demanding the release of political prisoners.