DAMASCUS, March 20 (Reuters) - Crowds set fire to the headquarters of the ruling Baath Party in the Syrian city of Deraa on Sunday, residents said, as the wave of unrest in the Arab world shook even one of its most authoritarian states.
The demonstrators also set ablaze the main courts complex and two phone company branches. One of the firms, Syriatel, is owned by President Bashar al-Assad's cousin Rami Makhlouf.
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"They burned the symbols of oppression and corruption," an activist said. "The banks nearby were not touched."
Earlier, Syrian security
forces killed a protester in Deraa,
residents said, as the authorities tried to contain three days of
protests demanding freedoms and the release of political prisoners.
al-Kerad was shot dead in the new part of Deraa, where gunfire is still
being heard, residents said. He is the fifth civilian killed by
security forces since protests against Syria's ruling elite erupted in
Deraa on Friday.
Thousands of Syrians demanded an end to 48 years of emergency
law on Sunday. "No. No to emergency law. We are a people infatuated with
freedom," marchers chanted as a government delegation arrived in the
southern town of Deraa to pay condolences for victims killed by security
forces in demonstrations there this week.
Syria has been ruled
under emergency law since the Baath Party, which is headed by President Assad, took power in a 1963 coup and banned all opposition.
government sought to appease popular discontent in Deraa by promising
to release 15 schoolchildren whose arrests for scrawling protest
graffiti had helped fuel the demonstrations.
An official statement said the children, who had written slogans
inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt on walls, would be released
immediately. The statement was a rare instance of Syria's ruling
hierarchy responding to popular pressure.
Security forces opened fire on Friday on civilians taking part in a
peaceful protest in Deraa demanding the release of the children,
political freedoms and an end to corruption. Four people were killed.
On Saturday thousands of mourners called for "revolution" at the funeral
of two of the protesters. Officials later met Deraa notables who
presented then with a list of demands, most importantly the release of
The list demands the dismantling of the secret police headquarters in
Deraa, dismissal of the governor, a public trial for those responsible
for the killings and scrapping of regulations requiring permission from
the secret police to sell and buy property. Non-violent protests have
challenged the Baath Party's authority this month, following the
uprisings that toppled the autocratic leaders of Egypt and Tunisia, with
the largest protests in Deraa drawing thousands of people.
The city is a centre of the Hauran region, once a bread basket that also
been affected by diminishing water levels in Syria, with yields falling
by a quarter in Deraa last year.
Deraa is also home to thousands of displaced people from eastern Syria,
where up to a million people have left their homes because of a water
crisis over the past six years. Experts say state mismanagement of
resources has worsened the crisis.