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Thousands continue protests in Syria

The demonstrations are largely peaceful in Dara, a day after security forces fired on protesters, killing as many as 25. The government promises reforms but rights groups say the pledges are nonbinding.

March 24, 2011|By Garrett Therolf and Meris Lutz, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Cairo and Beirut — Thousands of people took to the streets in the southern city of Dara, chanting "Syria, Freedom," a day after a deadly crackdown on protests there, human rights activists said.

The demonstrations Thursday occurred at the funerals for some of those killed when government forces opened fire on protesters the previous day. Initial reports put the death toll at 15, but Reuters news agency, citing a hospital source, said more than 25 people were killed.

Video on YouTube purporting to show the assault included images of streets littered with bodies, some shot in the head.

No additional violence was reported Thursday, but human rights activists said a number of Syrian writers and journalists who reported on the unrest in Dara had been arrested.

Demonstrations erupted in the Roman-era city near the Jordanian border last week when residents took to the streets to demand the release of 20 political detainees. Many of the protesters were parents seeking the release of teenage children detained after spraying antigovernment graffiti on walls, witnesses said.

But the government refused to release them, and the demands soon swelled to include an end to the government's secret police organization, which is headed in Dara by President Bashar Assad's cousin.

As online social media buzzed about large scale protests planned for Friday in Damascus, the Syrian government said it would consider lifting draconian restrictions on political freedom and civil liberties.

Presidential advisor Bouthaina Shaaban pledged to consider ending the emergency law in place since 1963 that has allowed the government to detain anyone without a warrant or a trial.

She said the government was also drafting a law that would allow political parties other than the ruling Baath party to operate, and loosen restrictions on news media. She also promised wage increases and health insurance for public servants.

But the human rights activists noted that the promises were not binding and pledged to move forward with their plans for Friday protests.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

Times staff writer Therolf reported from Cairo and special correspondent Lutz from Beirut.

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