Women and children call for release of Syrian prisoners

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Thousands of Syrian women and children holding white flags and olive branches blocked a main coastal highway yesterday, demanding authorities release people detained during a crackdown on opponents of the regime.

The crowd – unusual as it was dominated by women and children – demanded the release of hundreds of men who have been rounded up in the northeastern villages of Bayda and Beit Jnad and surrounding areas in recent days.

"We will not be humiliated!" the crowd shouted, according to witnesses who spoke anonymously. They were gathering along the main road between the coastal cities of Tartous and Banias.

Protests erupted in Syria almost one month ago and have been growing steadily, with tens of thousands of people calling for sweeping reforms. President Bashar Assad's government has responded both with brute force and the promise of reforms.

More than 200 people have been killed during nearly four weeks of unrest, according to Syria's leading pro-democracy group, the Damascus Declaration.

In an apparent attempt to calm the women's demonstration, authorities released about 100 of the detainees and brought them to the area where the protesters gathered, prompting cheers.

One protester said the sit-in will continue until all the men are released.

President Assad blames the violence on armed gangs rather than reform-seekers and has vowed to crush further unrest. He has tried to ease growing outrage, including dismissing his Cabinet, firing local officials and granting Syrian nationality to thousands of Kurds, a long-ostracised minority.

The gestures have failed to satisfy protesters who are demanding political freedoms and an end to the decades-old emergency laws that give the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge.