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Security crackdown fails to deter Syrian demonstrators

Protesters marched in the southern Syrian city of Dara on Tuesday, pressing their demands for political freedoms for a fifth day despite a security crackdown.

Some witnesses said the protesters numbered in the hundreds; others said thousands took part. But it was clear that the burgeoning protest was the largest of President Bashar Assad's 11-year-rule.

The protests once again stopped short of calling for the ouster of Assad, pushing instead for the release of political dissidents and an end to the secret police organization, which is headed in Dara by the president's cousin.

Syria has been under emergency law since the Baath Party took power in 1963, banning any opposition. The party headquarters in Dara was set ablaze Sunday, witnesses said.

The demonstrations Tuesday were centered around the Omari Mosque, which has become a refuge for those wounded in a violent crackdown by security forces who used tear gas and live ammunition. The security forces were blamed in the deaths of at least five people, drawing a rebuke from the White House.

"Those responsible for the violence over the weekend must be held accountable," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said Monday. "The United States stands for a set of universal rights, including the freedom of expression and assembly, and believes that governments, including the Syrian government, must address the legitimate aspirations of their people."

A human rights activist in Damascus who is in touch with the protesters said Tuesday that the crackdown had backfired. "People in the street got organized when their children were killed and beaten," said the activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.

Footage posted online appeared to show sporadic demonstrations throughout Syria over the past week, but state-imposed limitations on media have made such events difficult to cover or confirm. On Tuesday, a planned sit-in at the Palace of Justice in Damascus was thwarted when a heavy security presence swept through, a second human rights activist told the Los Angeles Times.

A clip posted on YouTube showed several hundred villagers in Sanamein, near Dara, chanting "Freedom!" while another showed dozens gathered in the Hajar Aswad neighborhood of the capital.

The president's father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, waged a ruthless campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and other dissidents in the 1980s, leaving a legacy of fear among would-be opposition activists.

The National Organization for Human Rights in Syria published on Tuesday the names of at least 90 people who have been arrested in the recent unrest, including Muhammad Deebo, a Syrian writer and journalist.

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