Syria's security forces fire tear gas as tens of thousands march on Damascus

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The Independent Online

Security forces fired tear gas and beat protesters with batons yesterday as tens of thousands of people marched towards the Syrian capital demanding far greater reforms than the limited concessions offered by President Bashar Assad over the past four weeks.

Violence in the Damascus suburb of Douma was reported after Friday prayers, the main day for demonstrations across the Arab world. The attempt to reach the capital was a bold action by a protest movement that has mostly stayed outside Damascus. The protesters in Douma held up yellow cards, which they said was a football-inspired warning to the regime. "This is our first warning, next time we will come with the red cards," said one man.

The month-long protest movement has steadily gathered momentum as tens of thousands of people demand sweeping reforms in Assad's authoritarian regime. More than 200 people have been killed during the government crackdown on protesters, says Syria's main pro-democracy group.

Yesterday, crowds gathered in several cities chanting "Freedom!" and demanding an end to the decades-old emergency laws, which allow the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge. Lifting the state of emergency has been a key demand for protesters.

The largest protests were in Douma and in the southern city of Daraa, which has become the epicenter of the protest movement. Witnesses said there were up to 100,000 people outside the capital and at least 20,000 in Daraa. It was impossible to independently verify this as Syria has put tight restrictions on media coverage, preventing access to trouble spots and expelling journalists.

There was no immediate sign of army and security services in Daraa – a stark change from previous weeks, when Syrian forces fired tear gas and live bullets at the protesters. Syria faces growing international condemnation as the unrest continues. The French Foreign Ministry said that the French, German, Italian, Spanish and British ambassadors met Syria's foreign minister to discuss the situation in Syria.

"The ambassadors expressed the very serious concern of their authorities about the continued violence and deaths across the country," the French Foreign Ministry statement said. The ambassadors called on the Syrian authorities to respond to the "legitimate demands" of the Syrian people.

For the first time, Syrian television showed footage of protests in several cities – a sign that it cannot ignore the protests. It also offered the regime a chance to offer its own version of events.

Syrian TV reported that about 300 people protested in the port city of Latakia, while the march in Douma attracted more than 300 people. There was no mention of any attack by security forces. Syrian TV said about 30 people protested in the central city of Homs and in the city of Deir ez-Zor.