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Syria's Assad faces crisis, mourners burn buildings

Syria frees 260 political detainees says rights group

President Bashar al-Assad faced the deepest crisis of his 11 years in power on Saturday, with one city in the grip of anti-government protesters and clashes spreading to several other towns.

Thousands of mourners at a funeral in the southern city of Deraa, where dozens have been killed in anti-government protests since last week, burned a ruling Baath party building and a police station on Saturday.

Three bare-chested young men climbed onto the rubble of a statue of late President Hafez al-Assad, which protesters pulled down on Friday in a scene that recalled the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Iraq in 2003 by U.S. troops.

A witness said they had cardboard signs reading "the people want the downfall of the regime", a refrain heard in uprisings across the Arab world from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen.

In nearby Tafas, mourners in the funeral procession of Kamal Baradan, who was killed on Friday in Deraa, set fire to the Baath party building and the police station, residents said.

There were also protests in the capital Damascus and in Hama, a northern city where in 1982 the forces of Assad's father killed thousands of people and razed much of the old quarter to put down an armed uprising by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

A human rights lawyer said on Saturday that 260 prisoners, mostly Islamists, had been released after completing at least three-quarters of their sentences.

Dozens of people have been killed over the past week around the southern city of Deraa, medical officials said. There were reports of more than 20 new deaths on Friday.

Such demonstrations would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago in this most tightly controlled of Arab countries.

But the unrest came to a head after police detained more than a dozen schoolchildren for writing graffiti inspired by slogans used by other pro-democracy demonstrators abroad.

Amnesty International put the death toll in and around Deraa in the past week at 55 at least. Shops reopened in Deraa on Saturday, and security forces were not in evidence.

International condemnation

There was a chorus of international condemnation of the shootings of demonstrators.

But analysts said foreign nations were likely to tread carefully around Syria, which has a close alliance with Iran and links to Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas and Lebanese Shi'ite political and military group Hezbollah.

Bordered by Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, Syria and its 22 million people sit at the heart of a complex web of conflict in the Middle East.

There were also protests on Friday in Damascus and in Hama, a northern city where in 1982 the forces of Assad's father killed thousands of people and razed much of the old quarter to put down an armed uprising by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

Abdelhalim Khaddam, a former vice president who resigned and defected from the ruling Baath Party in 2005, said on Saturday "the blood of our martyrs will burn this regime".

New York-based Human Rights Watch said on Friday Syria's security forces should immediately stop using live ammunition against protesters in Deraa which is on the border with Jordan.

"President Bashar al-Assad's talk about reforms doesn't mean anything when his security forces are mowing down people who want to talk about them," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East and North Africa director.

President Bashar al-Assad's talk about reforms doesn't mean anything

Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW\\\\\\\'s Middle East and North Africa director

Tipping point

Some believed the crackdown followed by talks could lead to reforms but many said a tipping point had been reached in Syria.

"We were under a lot of pressure from the oppressive authority, now when you pass by (security forces), nobody utters a word. They don't dare talk to the people. The people have no fear anymore," said Deraa resident, Abu Jassem.

The government has accused armed gangs of being behind the violence and blamed them for the killing of civilians.

Access for journalists was restricted, although a Reuters reporter in Deraa said tens of thousands of people who marched on Friday during funerals for demonstrators killed earlier in the week appeared largely to be unarmed and chanted for freedom.

The International Crisis Group think-tank said the 45-year-old, British-educated Assad could call on reserves of goodwill among the population to steer away from confrontation and introduce political and economic reforms.

"Syria is at what is rapidly becoming a defining moment for its leadership," the thinktank wrote on Friday. "There are only two options. One involves an immediate and inevitably risky political initiative that might convince the Syrian people that the regime is willing to undertake dramatic change.

"The other entails escalating repression, which has every chance of leading to a bloody and ignominious end."

We were under a lot of pressure from the oppressive authority, now when you pass by nobody utters a word. They don't dare talk to the people

Deraa resident, Abu Jassem