AMMAN (Reuters) - Security forces killed six people in demonstrations across Syria on Friday calling for an end to autocratic rule, rights campaigners said, after the government promised to hold a “national dialogue” in the coming days.
The Syrian leadership has drawn increasing international criticism and modest sanctions over its military crackdown on two months of pro-democracy unrest in which rights groups say about 700 people have been killed by security forces.
Friday’s killings occurred in the southern city of Deraa, cradle of the two-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, the Damascus suburb of Qaboun and the central city of Homs, rights campaigner Razan Zaitouna said.
Another rights campaigner said security police fired at a night demonstration in the eastern town of Mayadeen, injuring four people.
He said a security clampdown had intensified in recent days in a tribal area near the border with Iraq, where most of Syria’s output of 380,000 barrels of oil per day are produced.
But the bloodshed and death toll after Friday prayers was less than on previous occasions. There were fewer clashes and the numbers of protesters were lower in areas where Assad dispatched troops and tanks to stamp out rallies.
One rights activist said he had been told by a senior Assad adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, that the president had ordered troops and police not to fire on demonstrators.
Security forces backed off from confronting a large demonstration on Friday in Rastan near the central city of Homs, a witness said.
“There are signs that Assad may be changing tactics, possibly in reaction to international pressure,” a senior Western diplomat told Reuters. “There were less shootings, but the fact that people came out today to protest with the heavy security deployment is remarkable.”
Before Friday’s killings, Information Minister Adnan Hasan Mahmoud said in televised remarks that Assad would hold a “national dialogue in all provinces ... (in) the coming days.”
Mahmoud said army units had started to leave the coastal city of Banias and completed a pullout from Deraa, although residents there reported tanks outside mosques in the morning.
Prominent activists said that dialogue would be serious only if the government freed thousands of political prisoners and allowed freedom of expression and assembly.
Aref Dalila, an economist who met Shaaban last week, said “the domination of the security apparatus over life in Syria” must end for different opinions to be represented.
“We are long used to these ‘dialogues’ in Syria, where the regime assembles its loyalists in a conference and the other opinion is either in jail or underground,” he said.
Assad’s combination of repression and reform gestures earlier in the crisis, including lifting a 48-year state of emergency, had failed to quell the dissent.
Thousands demonstrated in towns and cities across Syria after the weekly Muslim prayers, activists and witnesses said.
Assad has used forces to suppress major centers of protests and Shaaban said earlier this week Syria had passed the “most dangerous moment” of the unrest, the stiffest challenge ever to his rule.
His Baath Party has run Syria with an iron fist since a 1963 coup, first under his father Hafez al-Assad who died in 2000 and then under Bashar.
Witnesses said there were protests in Damascus, in a suburb of the capital and the city of Hama where Assad’s father crushed an armed Islamist uprising in 1982. A Kurdish opposition figure said thousands marched in three towns in eastern Syria.
Residents and activists also reported protests in towns and villages across the southern Hauran Plain, saying troops fired in the air to disperse a crowd of hundreds who took to the streets of Deraa despite an afternoon curfew.
Despite the minister’s comments about an army withdrawal, they said tanks in front of mosques and heavy security prevented most people attending prayers. A 2.30 p.m. to 8.00 a.m. curfew started two hours earlier on Friday.
In the Damascus district of Barzeh and in the suburb of Saqba, witnesses said protesters chanted “We want the overthrow of the regime,” the slogan of the Arab uprisings which swept out the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year.
The main weekly prayers are a rallying point for protesters because they offer the only opportunity for large gatherings. Fridays have seen the worst death tolls in the wave of unrest.
The Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists said troops have killed 700 people, rounded up thousands and indiscriminately shelled towns during the protests.
The government says about 100 troops and police have been killed. A statement from the official SANA news agency said on Friday that more than 5,000 people had surrendered to authorities over their role in the protests and been released, under an amnesty offer which runs until May 15.
In nearly two months of unrest, Syria’s two main cities of Damascus and Aleppo have remained relatively quiet.
Rights groups have accused the United States and its European allies of responding weakly to the Syrian violence, in contrast to Libya where they are carrying out a bombing campaign they say will not end until Muammar Gaddafi is driven from power.
The United States and Europe have imposed economic sanctions on senior Syrian officials but not on Assad himself. Western powers say they could take further steps.
Britain summoned the Syrian ambassador to London, warning that unless Damascus “stopped the killing of protesters and released political prisoners... (the EU) would take further measures to hold the regime to account.”
Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Keith Weir in London; editing by David Stamp