Protests erupted across Syria against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad on Friday and sources said at least 22 people were killed in the southern city of Deraa, the cradle of unrest challenging his 11-year rule.

In the east, thousands of ethnic Kurds demonstrated for reform despite the president's offer this week to ease rules which bar many Kurds from citizenship, activists said.

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Protests swept the country of 20 million people, from the Mediterranean port of Latakia to Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border, as demonstrations entered a fourth week in defiance of Assad's security crackdown and growing list of reform pledges.

"Freedom, freedom, we want freedom," thousands of protesters chanted in many Syrian cities. Some shouted: "We sacrifice our blood and soul for you, Deraa."

Residents said security forces used water cannon and smoke bombs to break up a 2,000-strong protest in the old quarter of Hama, the city where thousands of people were killed in 1982.

They fired on thousands of protesters in Deraa, where demonstrations first broke out in March, residents said. They said protesters set fire to a building belonging to the ruling Baath Party and smashed a statue of the president's brother, Basil.

A volunteer at Deraa hospital and an activist said that 17 people were killed, reading a list of names. It took the death toll in three weeks of protests to more than 90.

State television said armed groups killed 19 policemen and wounded 75 in Deraa.

Authorities have blamed armed groups for the violence and state television broadcast footage on Friday of plain clothed gunmen it said fired at security forces and civilians alike. It said a policeman and an ambulance driver were killed.

Syria has prevented other media reporting from Deraa.

"I saw pools of blood and three bodies in the street being picked up by relatives," a Deraa resident told Reuters by phone.

"There were snipers on roofs. Gunfire was heavy. The injured are being taken to homes. No one trusts putting his relative in a hospital in these circumstances," he added. Many protesters feared they would be arrested if taken to clinics.

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