Syria Forces Kill 17 in Daraa as Thousands Gather for Anti-regime Protests

Security forces fire tear gas, live ammunition at people in demonstration against Baath Party rule despite overtures by Assad to end three weeks of unrest.

Syrian security forces killed 17 protesters on Friday when they fired at a demonstration against Baath Party rule in the southern city of Daraa, a hospital source and activist said.

"I saw pools of blood and three bodies in the street being picked up by relatives in the Mahatta area," a witness said.

Protesters burned a Baath Party outpost and smashed a statue of Basil Assad, President Bashar Assad's late brother.

Syrian security forces fired tear gas and live ammunition as thousands of protesters gathered in a tense southern city despite overtures by Syria's president to end three weeks of unrest, witnesses said.

Marching in Daraa - Reuters - March 25, 2011

The state news agency SANA reported shooting in Deraa, but it said "vandals" had opened fire on mass gatherings, killing a policeman and an ambulance driver and wounding dozens of police and residents.

An eyewitness said the shooting started after thousands of people marched out of the mosque in Daraa, which has become the epicenter of the country's protest movement.

The sound of shooting could be heard through the telephone, but the witness said it was not clear whether security forces were shooting at the protesters or in the air.

Like most activists and witnesses who spoke to The Associated Press, he requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Another activist in touch with protesters in the northeastern town of Amouda said a demonstration was starting there.

The reports could not be independently confirmed because Syria has restricted media access since the protests began three weeks ago. Human rights groups have said at least 100 people have been killed in the security crackdown.

Protest organizers have called on Syrians to take to the streets every Friday for the past three weeks, demanding reform in one of the most authoritarian nations in the Middle East. The protests have rattled the regime of President Bashar Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for nearly 40 years.

Assad has made a series of concessions to quell the violence, including sacking his Cabinet and firing two governors.

On Thursday, he granted citizenship to thousands of Kurds, fulfilling a decades-old demand of the country's long-ostracized minority. But the protest Friday in Amouda — a Kurdish city — suggested the population still was not satisfied.

An activist in Douma, a Damascus suburb where at least eight people were killed during protests last Friday, said he was expecting a large turnout Friday. Hundreds of activists and residents have met this week to prepare for the demonstration.

But telephone lines to Douma appeared to be cut Friday. Activists in Damascus, quoting people who came from Douma, said thousands of people were demonstrating outside the suburb's Grand Mosque.

Despite the regime's gestures, many Syrian activists remain skeptical about the regime's concessions.

"All these decisions are cosmetic, they do not touch the core of the problem," Haitham al-Maleh, a leading opposition figure, told the AP on Thursday.

Al-Maleh, an 80-year-old lawyer and longtime rights activist who spent several years in jail, said the protests that began in Syria will "continue to snowball until real changes are made."

He said Syria must take steps including: lifting the state of emergency, which has been in place since 1963 and gives the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge; allow the formation of political parties; and allow free elections.