Syrian security forces launched a harsh crackdown Friday on protesters calling for political freedoms, killing at least five people and marking the gravest unrest in years in one of the most repressive states in the Mideast, according to accounts from activists and social media.
Mazen Darwish, a prominent Syrian activist in Damascus, said at least five people were shot and killed when security forces tried to disperse hundreds of protesters in the southern town of Daraa, near the Jordanian border. He cited eyewitnesses and hospital officials at the scene.
Friday's violence happened during one of several demonstrations across the country in Homs, Banyas and the capital, Damascus. But only the Daraa protest turned deadly, Darwish said.
Serious disturbances in Syria would be a major expansion of the wave of unrest tearing through the Arab world for more than a month in the wake of pro-democracy uprisings that overthrew the autocratic leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. Syria, a predominantly Sunni country ruled by minority Alawites, has a history of brutally crushing dissent -- including a notorious massacre in which President Hafez Assad crushed a Muslim fundamentalist uprising in the city of Hama in 1982, killing thousands.
On Friday, Syrian forces used water cannons, batons and gunfire to beat up protesters in Daraa. The violence began when a large group of people emerged from the Al-Omari mosque, marching and shouting slogans against corruption and calling for more political freedoms.
A human rights activist told the Associated Press that security forces cordoned the main hospital in Daraa where some of the wounded were being treated, preventing families from visiting the victims. He cited hospital workers, but spoke on condition of anonymity.
The government's TV channel and news agency said "infiltrators" in Daraa caused "chaos and riots" and smashed cars and public and private property before they attacked riot police. It said a similar demonstration in the coastal town of Banyas dispersed without incident.
Amateur video footage posted on YouTube and Twitter showed large groups of protesters in several cities, but the authenticity of the footage could not be independently confirmed.
In the capital, plainclothes security officers forcefully dispersed about a dozen protesters calling for more freedoms in the country, human rights activists said earlier in the day.
The protest was the third small rally broken up in Damascus this week.