Thousands defy Syrian troops and demonstrate in Deraa

Protesters also set fire to the main complex of court buildings, and two phone company branches.

DAMASCUS // Unrest escalated in the southern city of Deraa yesterday, with crowds setting fire to the headquarters of the ruling Baath party and clashing with heavily reinforced security units.

Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets for a third day in succession to demand political reforms, an end to corruption and justice for protesters killed last week by government troops.

According to activists and civil rights campaigners, they were met by security forces firing tear gas and live ammunition. One man, Raed Akrad, was killed they said, and more than 100 others wounded.

Demonstrators also set fire to the main complex of court buildings, and two phone company branches. One of them, Syriatel, is headed by Rami Makhlouf, a tycoon businessman and President Bashar al Assad's cousin.

Activists said that Deraa had been surrounded by the military, but that soldiers had not yet entered the city or directly intervened.

If confirmed, the latest death comes in addition to four protesters fatally shot by security forces in the city on Friday. There was no formal word from the government on yesterday's shooting but authorities had earlier warned that "some instigators, impersonating security figures and high-ranking officers", had been ordering rank and file police to violently put down demonstrations.

The government had tried to defuse the situation, launching a full inquiry into Friday's shootings, with a promise that those found responsible would be held to account.

Senior officials arrived in Deraa yesterday morning to begin the investigation, and to offer condolences to the bereaved families. An official statement called dead 'martyrs', a sign of respect.

"President [Bashar] al Assad cares for the lives and safety of people just as much as he does for the security and stability of the country," Tamer Al Hajjeh, the minister of local governance, was quoted as saying by SANA, the official Syrian news agency. "Therefore, he ordered that the necessary measures be taken to punish everyone who is proved responsible for what happened."

The authorities also said they would release 15 schoolchildren from Deraa, who, inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, had written political graffiti on walls, an act of dissidence for which they were arrested earlier this month.

Previous efforts to get the children freed, including a rare demonstration in central Damascus last week, had failed to convince the government that concessions were necessary. Instead, 32 of the protesters were arrested.

It was the detention of the children, in addition to simmering discontent in Deraa over corruption and abuse of power by well-connected local officials, which triggered Friday's protest. The brutal response resulted in an escalation of the crisis, with some 10,000 people taking to the streets on Saturday and again yesterday.

According to a member of the Baath party from Deraa, at least two senior local officials, including a high-ranking security officer, have now been suspended, while financial compensation has been offered to the families of the dead demonstrators.

"The central authorities [in Damascus] are extremely angry over the shootings," the Baathist said, on condition of anonymity.

"It was a huge mistake … with the upheaval in the region, we need more wisdom and cannot afford for such mistakes to happen … Those responsible must and will be held to account, no matter what rank or position they have."

Demonstrators in Deraa have made ten demands, including the sacking of the provincial governor and the immediate release of all political prisoners.

Umran Zaubie, a lawyer and Baath party member from Deraa, said the steps taken so far by the authorities had addressed people's concerns. "It's over now, the people are satisfied with the measures that have been put in place," he said yesterday afternoon, before the buildings were torched.

Demonstration supporters, however, said the situation had snowballed far beyond local grievances.