Protests demanding major reforms in Syria spread on 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.
Protests also broke out in Hama, Tel, Duma Al-lazikiya, Homs, Al-Raqqah and other cities, according to Al Arabiya.
Chanting “Deraa is Syria” and “We will sacrifice ourselves for Syria,” hundreds of people marched from the Omayyed mosque in the centre of Damascus’ Old City, along Souk Al-Hamadiyeh street before police moved in.
Supporters of President Bashar Al-Assad shouted back: “God, Syria and Bashar, that’s all”, as convoys in support of Assad took to the streets.
At least five protesters were taken away by officers in plain clothes, according to an AFP correspondent.
Hundreds of people chanted “Freedom” on Friday in Hama, the city that was the site of the killing of thousands of people by Syrian security forces in 1982.
About 1,000 people rallied in the town of Tel, just north of the Syrian capital Damascus, in support of the city of Deraa, and denounced two relatives of President Bashar Al-Assad as “thieves”, witnesses said.
Mourners also gathered en masse for the funeral of two people killed this week during clashes with security forces in Deraa, about 120 kilometres south of Damascus, where a security clampdown has left 100 dead according to human rights groups. Syrian authorities have put the death toll at 10 only.
Deraa had been calm on Friday morning with the army gone and children playing on the streets, although journalists were ordered to leave the city ahead of weekly prayers, which have often been followed by protests.
One resident, contacted by AFP, said the chant had been: “With our blood and souls, we sacrifice ourselves for you, our martyr.”
Activists had vowed earlier to push on with rallies against “injustice and repression” after weekly Muslim prayers, dismissing reform pledges announced by the authorities.
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.
Facebookgroup The Syria Revolution 2011, which has attracted almost 78,000 fans, had called for “Day of Dignity” rallies 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 Deraa and throughout the country,” a statement on the site said.
“We will continue to demand freedom through peaceful protests until our demands are met.”
The call for protests came despite announcements that President Assad had ordered the release of all activists detained this month, and the ruling Baath party had agreed to a string of reforms including studying the lifting of emergency laws in force since 1963.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the release of all detainees arrested in Deraa, a tribal city that has emerged as the hub of the protests.
Presidential adviser Buthaina Shaaban also said a Baath meeting, chaired by Assad on Thursday, had agreed to look into a new media law granting “greater transparency and freedom” and was forming a committee to discuss with Deraa residents the week’s events and to sanction those responsible.
Syria, the latest Arab country to witness an uprising against a long-running autocratic regime, has been hit by unprecedented protests demanding major change after almost five decades of Baath party rule.
The demonstrations began this month in Damascus but have been largely contained in the capital. They broke out in force instead in the tribal town of Deraa, where activists reported more than 100 people killed on Wednesday alone in clashes with security forces.
After Thursday’s reform announcements, pro-Assad demonstrators immediately took to the streets of Damascus, waving pictures of the president and his father, Hafez al-Assad, who came to power in 1970.
But in Deraa, people flooded into the streets after the speech, rejecting the pledge in their chants as more of the same, said a resident.
Lawyer and activist Issa al-Masalmeh, 70, reached by telephone in Deraa, said the pledges if fulfilled would answer some of the long-held demands of the opposition.
“Our peaceful movement will continue because we cannot simply rely on promises,” said Masalmeh, who was among those released after four days in jail.
“Easy promises are not enough, we want tangible measures.”