(CNSNews.com) – The political unrest rippling across the Middle East jolted Syria at the weekend, with several deaths reported amid the violence and protesters setting fire to buildings, including a regional office of the ruling party.
Small protests simmering in several locations over recent weeks escalated into serious clashes between Syrians demanding political freedoms and security forces in the agricultural center of Daraa, 60 miles from Damascus.
At least one person was reported to have been killed Sunday when police used live ammunition and teargas to disperse demonstrators calling for an end to emergency law, freedom for political prisoners and an end to corruption.
Two days earlier, at least four people were killed in the same southern town when security forces opened fire on demonstrators. Apart from political demands they had also been calling for the release of 15 school students arrested earlier this month for writing anti-regime slogans on walls.
Ahead of Sunday’s violence, the government – in a rare development for Syria – appeared to be reconsidering its usual blunt response to political opposition and seeking to placate public sentiment.
The state news agency SANA said a government committee had been set up to investigate Friday’s “unfortunate incidents,” in which officials acknowledged that two deaths had occurred. It said anyone found responsible for abuses would be punished.
President Bashir Assad also sent a government delegation to offer condolences to the families of the two “martyrs.”
But in a move which critics say is typical of the regime’s attempts to manipulate public opinion and dodge blame, SANA also cited an official source as blaming the violence on “instigators” who impersonated security officials.
The source claimed that the police had come under fire but had not shot back.
Daraa, which is near the border with Jordan, is not the only Syrian city to be affected by unrest. Small protests also have been reported in Damascus, Aleppo in the north, and other centers.
Last Wednesday security forces used force to disperse a protest outside a government ministry in Damascus by some 150 people wanting to submit a petition for the release of political prisoners. At least 18 of those involved were detained, according to Human Rights Watch.
Syrians have lived under emergency law for almost five decades, since a Ba’athist-led coup toppled the government in 1963. The current president’s father, Hafez Assad, seized power in a purge of the Ba’ath party in 1971, and the Assad family has ruled Syria with an iron grip ever since.
Human rights groups include Syria among the world’s 20 most repressive countries today, with an estimated 4,000 political prisoners and tight restrictions on freedom of expression and association.
In 2005, opponents of the government signed a manifesto calling for peaceful political reform, an end to emergency rule and release of political prisoners. Twelve of the signatories were later put on trial, convicted on “weakening patriotic spirit” and sentenced to jail terms ranging from three to six years.
Syria, Iran’s closest ally in the region, recently announced its candidacy for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, a body whose membership was in the spotlight with the recent vote to suspend Libya.
Unless at least two more countries in Asia announce their candidacies ahead of an election in May, Syria will likely get the seat, since there are four vacancies for the group and only three countries have expressed interest so far.