CAIRO >> Thousands of Syrians shouting “We want freedom!” marched Friday in a southern city that has become the epicenter of an extraordinary protest movement as security forces deployed across the country, witnesses said.
Activists dubbed Friday a “Day of Martyrs” and called for mass demonstrations to honor more than 70 people killed during two weeks of protests in one of the most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.
An eyewitness told The Associated Press by telephone that up to 5,000 people took to the streets in Daraa shouting “We want freedom!” and “The blood of martyrs is not cheap!” The account could not be independently confirmed.
The media are under heavy restrictions in Syria. On Friday, two Associated Press journalists were ordered to leave the country with less than an hour’s notice.
Security forces were heavily deployed in and around the city but did not immediately intervene to stop them, said the eyewitness, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Protests erupted in Syria on March 18 in the impoverished and drought-stricken south and spread quickly to other areas. Syrian activists have called for massive demonstrations following Friday midday prayers across the nation.
President Bashar Assad dashed expectations he would announce sweeping reforms this week and instead blamed the popular fury that has gripped Syria on a foreign conspiracy. He set up committees on Thursday to investigate the civilian deaths and the possibility of replacing decades-old emergency laws.
The wave of protests has presented the 45-year-old leader with the gravest challenge since he inherited power 11 years ago from his father, taking the helm of one of the Middle East’s most authoritarian regimes.
Scores of plainclothes security agents deployed Friday in Damascus near the historic Umayyad mosque, where only last week, pro- and anti-government crowds clashed, hitting each other with leather belts.
As people began leaving the mosque Friday, a crowd of at least 300 people carrying Syrian flags and pictures of Assad broke out into clapping and chants of “Allah, Syria, Bashar!” The chanting lasted for about 10 minutes before the crowds dispersed.
Security forces made no attempt to stop them.
There were reports of other protests in areas surrounding Daraa, as well as the northeastern city of Qamishli, but those reports could not be immediately confirmed.
A Syrian Kurd in Beirut in touch with eyewitnesses there said thousands of people were protesting in Qamishli as well as the nearby towns of Amouda and Derbasiya. He said the demonstrators came out in solidarity with Daraa, chanting “peaceful, peaceful.”
The activist said security forces and soldiers were closely watching the demonstrations.