DAMASCUS (Reuters) – Thousands of Syrians demanded an end to 48 years of emergency law on Sunday, a third straight day of protests emerging as the biggest challenge to Syria’s rulers since unrest swept the Arab world this year.
“No. No to emergency law. We are a people infatuated with freedom,” marchers chanted as a government delegation arrived in the southern town of Deraa to pay condolences for victims killed by security forces in demonstrations there this week.
Syria has been ruled under emergency law since the Baath Party, which is headed by president Bashar al-Assad, took power in a 1963 coup and banned all opposition.
The government sought to appease popular discontent in Deraa by promising to release 15 schoolchildren whose arrests for scrawling protest graffiti had helped fuel the demonstrations.
An official statement said the children, who had written slogans inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt on walls, would be released immediately. The statement was a rare instance of Syria’s ruling hierarchy responding to popular pressure.
Security forces opened fire on Friday on civilians taking part in a peaceful protest in Deraa demanding the release of the children, political freedoms and an end to corruption. Four people were killed.
On Saturday thousands of mourners called for “revolution” at the funeral of two of the protesters. Officials later met Deraa notables who presented then with a list of demands, most importantly the release of political prisoners.
The list demands the dismantling of the secret police headquarters in Deraa, dismissal of the governor, a public trial for those responsible for the killings and scrapping of regulations requiring permission from the secret police to sell and buy property. Non-violent protests have challenged the Baath Party’s authority this month, following the uprisings that toppled the autocratic leaders of Egypt and Tunisia, with the largest protests in Deraa drawing thousands of people.
The city is a center of the Hauran region, once a bread basket that also been affected by diminishing water levels in Syria, with yields falling by a quarter in Deraa last year.
Deraa is also home to thousands of displaced people from eastern Syria, where up to a million people have left their homes because of a water crisis over the past six years. Experts say state mismanagement of resources has worsened the crisis.