Wave of unrest shakes Syria as crowds torch party HQ

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The Independent Online

Crowds set fire to a headquarters of the ruling Baath Party in the Syrian city of Deraa yesterday, residents said, as the wave of unrest in the Arab world shook even one of its most authoritarian states.

The demonstrators also set ablaze the main courts complex and two phone company branches. One of the firms, Syriatel, is owned by President Bashar al-Assad's cousin Rami Makhlouf.

"They burned the symbols of oppression and corruption," an activist said. "The banks nearby were not touched."

Assad, who has strengthened Syria's ties with Shi'ite Iran as he sought to improve relations with the United States and strike a peace deal with Israel to return the Golan Heights, is facing the biggest challenge to his rule since he succeeded his late father, Hafez al-Assad, 11 years ago.

He has sent government officials to try to placate Deraa but thousands rallied to demand an end to emergency law in the southern city, on the third consecutive day of protests against Syria's ruling Baath Party.

"No, no to emergency law. We are a people infatuated with freedom," marchers chanted, despite the arrival in Deraa of a government delegation to pay condolences to relatives of victims killed by security forces in demonstrations there this week.

Security forces fired tear gas at the protesters. Around 40 people were taken to be treated for gas inhalation at the main Omari mosque in the old city, residents said.

"The mosque is now a field hospital. The security forces know they cannot enter the old city without spilling more blood," one resident said.

Syria has been under emergency law since the Baath Party, which is headed by president Bashar al-Assad, took power 1963 and banned all opposition.

Makhlouf is under specific US sanctions for what Washington regards as public corruption and has been a target of protesters chanting "thief". He owns several large businesses.

The protesters were in control of the old quarters of Deraa by nightfall, with heavy security presence in the rest of the city, which is near the border with Jordan.