Middle East

Syria unrest: Twelve killed in Latakia protest

Anti-government demonstrators chant slogans in Damascus, Syria - 25 March 2011
Image caption There have been protests in a number of Syrian cities, including the capital Damascus

Twelve people were killed on Saturday during anti-government protests in the Syrian coastal city of Latakia, the government has confirmed.

It said civilians and security personnel were among the fatalities.

Dozens of people have been killed in a week of protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

A presidential spokesman said a decision to lift decades-old emergency laws had already been taken.

President Assad is expected to address the nation in the coming days.

The government said at least 200 people were also hurt in Latakia and blamed the deaths and injuries on unidentified gunmen shooting from rooftops.

Two of the dead were said to be unidentified gunmen.

Syrian troops have now entered Latakia, 350km (220 miles) north-west of the capital Damascus, to try to restore calm, officials said.

Offices of the ruling Baath party were set on fire there on Saturday.

Cleric blamed

Presidential spokeswoman Buthaina Shaaban told Agence France-Presse news agency: "President Assad will address his people very soon to explain the situation and clarify and elaborate on the reforms that have already been decided."

She said a decision to lift emergency laws in place since 1963 had "already been taken", although she could not confirm a timeframe.

The emergency laws restrict public gatherings and authorise the arrest of "suspects or persons who threaten security".

Any individual can be interrogated, the media officially controlled and surveillance authorised on personal communication.

Earlier Ms Shaaban said the authorities intended to put constitutional and party changes before the people in a referendum as soon as possible.

She also blamed a Sunni Muslim cleric in Doha, Sheik Youssef al-Qaradawi, for inciting the violence in Latakia, saying it had been trouble free before he spoke on Friday.

Latakia is a mostly Sunni city but has a minority Alawite sect.

On Sunday, some 100 lawyers marched in the southern mainly Druze town of Sweida to demand the lifting of martial law, an investigation into the deaths of Syrians and an end to the crackdown in Deraa.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the international community should not expect a US intervention in Syria along the lines of its action in Libya.

While "deploring" the violence in Syria, Mrs Clinton said "each of these situations is unique".

Statue pulled down

There were protests in several Syrian towns and cities on Saturday.

The biggest protests were in Tafas, 18km (11 miles) north of the city of Deraa, which is close to the Jordan border and which has become the centre of the challenge to the 11-year rule of the 45-year-old President Assad.

Thousands took to the streets in Tafas to bury three protesters who witnesses said had been killed by security forces on Friday. Baath party offices were burned down there, along with a police station.

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Media captionUnverified amateur footage purportedly showing protesters in Deraa on Friday tearing down a statue

Hundreds of people also renewed demonstrations in Deraa.

Protesters climbed on to the rubble of a statue of ex-President Hafez al-Assad that was torn down on Friday and resumed anti-government chants.

Some were holding cardboard signs reading "the people want the downfall of the regime", witnesses said.

On Saturday, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 200 inmates, mostly Islamists, were freed from Damascus' Saidnaya prison.

However, reports about the total number involved differ, with another human rights activist being quoted by Reuters as saying that 70 political prisoners were freed.

The Syrian government has so far made no official comment on the issue but Ms Shaaban said she would be surprised if her country had hundreds of such detainees.

On Sunday, rights activists said 17 more political detainees - arrested 10 days ago in a protest outside the interior ministry in Damascus, had been released.