Hundreds of Syrians burnt tires, blocked roads, and chanted anti-government slogans in the mainly ethnic Druze city of Sweida on Thursday to protest against worsening economic conditions and this week’s gasoline price hikes.
Demonstrators near a main city square called for the overthrow of President Bashar al Assad, witnesses said, echoing chants from 2011 pro-democracy protests that were violently crushed by security forces and sparked a long-running conflict.
“Long live Syria and down with Bashar al Assad!” protesters chanted near police headquarters and the governor’s office as security forces nearby avoided confrontation.
Such open dissent is rare in state-controlled areas.
The southwestern city of Sweida has stayed in government hands and largely been spared the unrest seen in other parts.
Many residents are from the minority Druze sect which has long resisted being drawn into the conflict pitting mainly Sunni rebels against Assad’s rule.
“This is close to an uprising as people express their deep anger with the decisions of the Syrian regime and the gasoline price hikes,” said Ryan Marouf, a civic activist and editor of the local Suwayda 24 news website.
“They are demanding a life of dignity.”
Syria is in the throes of a deep economic crisis that saw its currency plunge to a record 15,500 Syrian pounds to the dollar on Wednesday in a rapidly accelerating free-fall. It traded at 47 pounds to the dollar at the start of the conflict.
The government says cuts in a once lavish subsidy program to ease the burden on the sanctions-hit country’s state finances only affect the wealthiest.
But many protesters say the move has worsened the plight of ordinary Syrian who have suffered a decade of war and are now struggling to afford food and basic supplies amid rampant inflation and eroding incomes.
Syrian authorities blame Western sanctions for hardships.
There have been several minor protests in the last month over plunging incomes in coastal areas that are the stronghold of Assad supporters.
In the capital, taxi drivers and public buses waged a second day of partial stoppages on Thursday, bringing chaos to transport. There have also been clandestine calls by activists in government-controlled areas to wage a general strike.
State media made no mention of the protests.
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