DARAA, Syria – Syrian troops opened fire on protesters in the restive southern city of Daraa on Friday, shooting crowds that set fire to a bronze statue of the country's late president, a resident told The Associated Press.
The resident, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said heavy gunfire could be heard in the city center and witnesses had reported several casualties.
An activist in Damascus in touch with eyewitnesses in the village of Sanamein, near Daraa, said troops there opened fire on demonstrators trying to march to Daraa. He said there had been witness reports of fatalities, some claiming as many as 20 slain, but those could not be independently confirmed.
Tens of thousands of Syrians were taking to the streets across the country in the most widespread civil unrest in years, defying crowds of government backers and baton-wielding security forces to shout their support of the uprising in Daraa, according to witnesses, activists and footage posted online.
Thousands flooded Daraa's central Assad Square, many from nearby villages, chanting "Freedom! Freedom!" and waving Syrian flags and olive branches, a resident told The Associated Press by telephone.
Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, he claimed that more than 50,000 people were shouting slogans decrying presidential adviser Buthaina Shaaban, who promised Thursday that the government would consider a series of reforms in response to a week of unrest in Daraa.
A human rights activist, quoting witnesses, said thousands of people gathered in the town of Douma outside the capital, Damascus, pledging support for the people of Daraa. The activists asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.
Security forces dispersed the crowd by chasing them away, beating some with batons and detaining others, an activist said, asking that his name not be published for fear of reprisals by the government.
The capital, Damascus, was tense, with convoys of young Syrians roaming the streets in their cars, honking incessantly and waving out pictures of President Bashar Assad and Syrian flags. The convoys briefly blocked streets in some areas.
Outside Damascus' famous Ummayad Mosque, scores of people gathered, chanting pro-Assad slogans when a small group of people began shouting opposing slogans in support of the Daraa martyrs. Police dispersed the protesters peacefully.
Also in Damascus, about 200 people demonstrated after the Friday prayers at the Thawra Bridge, near the central Marjeh Square, chanting "our souls, our blood we sacrifice for you Daraa," and "freedom, freedom." They were chased by security forces who beat them some of them with batons and detained others, an activist said on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals.
In the city of Aleppo, hundreds of worshippers came out of mosques shouting "with our lives, our souls, we sacrifice for you Bashar" and "Only God, Syria and Bashar!"
Residents in the northern city of Homs said hundreds of people demonstrated in support of Daraa and demanded reforms.
The activist said that in the coastal city of Latakia, more than 1,000 people marched in the streets after Friday prayers. In the northern city of Raqqa, scores marched and several people were detained, he said.
And in the western city of Zabadani, near the border with Lebanon, several people were detained after protesting, he said.
Journalists who tried to enter Daraa's Old City — where most of the violence took place — were escorted out of town Friday by two security vehicles.
"As you can see, everything is back to normal and it is over," an army major, standing in front of the ruling Baath party head office in Daraa, told journalists before they were led out of the city.
Security forces appeared to be trying to reduce tension in Daraa by dismantling checkpoints and ensuring there was no visible army presence on the streets for the first time since last Friday, when the protests began.
Rattled by the unrest, the Syrian government Thursday pledged to consider lifting some of the Mideast's most repressive laws in an attempt to stop the weeklong uprising from spreading and threatening its nearly 50-year rule.
But the promises were immediately rejected by many activists who called for demonstrations around the country on Friday in response to a crackdown that protesters say killed dozens of anti-government marchers in Daraa.
"We will not forget the martyrs of Daraa," a resident told The Associated Press by telephone. "If they think this will silence us they are wrong."
Assad, a close ally of Iran and its regional proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, has promised increased freedoms for discontented citizens and increased pay and benefits for state workers — a familiar package of incentives offered by other nervous Arab regimes in recent weeks.
Shaaban, the presidential adviser, also said the Baath party would study ending a state of emergency that it put in place after taking power in 1963.
The emergency laws, which have been a feature of many Arab countries, allow people to be arrested without warrants and imprisoned without trial. Human rights groups say violations of other basic liberties are rife in Syria, with torture and abuse common in police stations, detention centers and prisons, and dissenters regularly imprisoned for years without due process.
The death toll from the weeklong crackdown was unclear and could not be independently confirmed. Shaaban says 34 people had been killed in the conflict.