Deaths reported as protests erupt across Syria
Syrians press protests despite reform pledge
Tens of thousands of Syrians took to the streets across the country Friday in the most widespread civil unrest in years, defying crowds of government backers and baton-wielding security forces to shout their support of an uprising in the southern city of Deraa, according to witnesses, activists and footage posted online.
There were unconfirmed reports from activists that at least 30 people have been killed across Syria in clashes between protests and security forces.
However, Information Minister Muhsin Bilal was quoted by Al Arabiya as saying "the situation is completely calm in all parts of the country."
Human rights group Amnesty International said at least 55 people are believed to have been killed since protests erupted in and around the southern Syrian city of Deraa a week ago.
"Security forces again opened fire on protesters in al-Sanamayn and carried out arrests in Damascus, according to reports on Friday, a day after the authorities pledged to investigate the violence," Amnesty said in a statement.
Protests demanding major reforms in Syria spread earlier Friday from the southern city of Deraa to Damascus, hours after the government announced a string of major reforms including the possibility of ending emergency rule that has been in place since 1963.
In Dahel, south of Damascus, around 300 people marched after Friday prayers, chanting: "Dahel and Deraa will not be humiliated."
Another 3,000 people took to the streets of Baniyas, a key port city on the Mediterranean coast, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Security forces broke up on Friday a demonstration in the center of the Syrian capital in support of protesters in the southern city of Deraa and arrested dozens of people, a Reuters witness said, as activists vowed to push on with rallies against "injustice and repression."
"We sacrifice our blood, our soul, for you Deraa," they chanted as they were met by President Bashar al-Assad loyalists chanting in support of the Syrian leader.
In Deraa, scene of protests against Baath Party rule, thousands of mourners chanted slogans of freedom and justice.
Witness said hundreds of villagers were marching to Deraa in support of the city,chanting "freedom is ringing."
They also chanted slogans denouncing Maher al-Assad, brother of the Syrian president and head of the republic guards.
Meanwhile, hundreds of people chanted "freedom" on Friday in Hama, the city that was scene in 1982 to the killing of thousands of people by Syrian security forces.
The demonstrators also chanted slogans in support of Deraa.
Facebook group The Syria Revolution 2011, which has attracted almost 78,000 fans, called for "Day of Dignity" rallies Friday at mosques across Syria, after a week of deadly protests in the south.
"We will continue to protest on Friday against injustice and repression in Daraa and throughout the country," a statement on the site said.
"We will continue to demand freedom through peaceful protests until our demands are met."
Some demonstrators reacted to the government's pledge of reform as insufficient and demanded concrete steps to be taken against those responsible for the deaths of dozens of protesters.
The president's media adviser Buthaina Shaaban had announced on Wednesday that he ruling Baath party had agreed to a series of reforms, including raising the salaries of state employees.
Shaaban said the government would also form a committee to listen to the demands of the people of Deraa, a tribal city at Syria's border with Jordan that has been the focal point of the week-long protests.
In major international reaction to the pledged reforms French President Nicols Sarkozy called on Friday for a halt of all forms of violence against demonstrators in Syria, saying that no democracy would accept opening fire on peaceful demonstrators.
"We expressed out great concern over the rise of violence in Syria," Sarkozy told a European summit.
"In all democracies there are demonstrations and it is possible that violence will occur, but what is not acceptable is the shooting of demonstrators," Sarkozy said.
Separately, US defense minister Robert Gates urged Syria to follow Egypt's example where the army refused to open fire of demonstrators and helped speed up the departure of the president Hosni Mubarak as people demanded.
Gates said the challenge facing the Syrian government is the same challenge of corruption and political and economic injustice facing governments across the region. He suggested that the regimes in Iran, Syria and Libya are authoritarian and do not hesitate to use force to quell peaceful protests.
(Compiled by Mustapha Ajbaili)