Protest erupts in Damascus in support of Deraa

Secret police break up demonstration, arresting dozens; Deraa tense but calm as Assad loyalists rally after bloodshed that killed at least 44.

Protesters in southern Syria 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri)
Protesters in southern Syria 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri)
DAMASCUS - At least 200 people marched in the center of Damascus after prayers on Friday in support of the city of Deraa, scene of protests against Baath Party rule, a Reuters witness said.
"We sacrifice our blood, our soul, for you Deraa," they chanted as they were met by President Bashar Assad loyalists chanting in support of the Syrian leader.
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Witnesses said secret police broke the demonstration up, arresting dozens of marchers.
Meanwhile in Deraa, small crowds gathered on Friday after calls to attend the funerals of people killed in unprecedented anti-government protests, but there was no immediate sign of protests.
Activists said there was debate among people assembled at Deraa's main Omari mosque whether a rally should be organized following the killing of at least 44 people in a police crackdown on the unrest that erupted a week ago.
"There is a sense of demoralization among the protesters, especially if no other cities in Syria rise up," said a resident of the city in southern Syria near the border with Jordan.
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Deraa was on edge but calm before noon prayers as President Bashar Assad's loyalists began to organise rallies to counter the rage that engulfed Deraa after the bloodshed that rattled a country in the iron grip of the Baath Party for almost 50 years.
A large procession of cars coursed through Deraa's streets honking horns and raising pictures of the president. There were pro-Assad congregations in other parts of the city.
Minarets in Deraa echoed throughout the morning with the calls of imams to the faithful to attend funerals of some of the civilians killed, most of them when security forces fired on demonstrators in the mainly Sunni Muslim city on Wednesday.
A Facebook page called Syrian Revolution called on people to gather on the "Friday of Dignity" after prayers, "in all mosques, in all provinces, in the biggest squares".
But similar calls over the past two months have not generated serious rallies that could threaten the grip of Assad, who succeeded his late father, Hafez al-Assad, 11 years ago.
Bashar al-Assad promised on Thursday to look into granting Syrians greater freedoms in an attempt to defuse the outbreak of popular demands for political freedoms and an end to corruption.
They were inspired by uprisings across the Arab world that have toppled the entrenched leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.
Despite Assad's gesture, which included a pledge to look into ending emergency law and an offer of large public pay rises, thousands of Syrians later turned out at the Omari mosque to chant "freedom, revolution".
A hospital official said at least 37 people were killed in Deraa on Wednesday when security forces fired on demonstrators in the impoverished provincial city.
The funeral of at least five people was scheduled on Friday.
Syrian security forces pulled out on Thursday from the mosque where several people were killed. People later converged on the mosque to celebrate its "liberation", setting off fireworks and honking car horns.