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Thousands Protest in Syria Where Clashes Killed Five

BEIRUT (AP) — Thousands of Syrians protested Sunday in a tense southern city where security forces killed at least five protesters, a witness and activists said.

The witness in Daraa told The Associated Press by telephone that protesters were angry about the shooting Friday and mass arrests in the wake of the demonstrations calling for political freedoms, and called for officials involved in the violence to be fired. The witness spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government retaliation.

The protesters were also demanding the release of 20 young men who were detained this month after writing pro-democracy graffitti on walls in Daraa, the witness said. Three activists in Damascus who are in contact with other Daraa residents confirmed that account.

One activist said police fired tear gas and bullets in the air to disperse the protesters, but the report could not be immediately confirmed.

Syrian police sealed off Daraa after security forces killed at least five people participating in demonstrations that were the first manifestation of the Arab world's pro-democracy push seeping into one of the region's most repressive countries. The activists said residents of Daraa were being allowed to leave but not enter the city.

A Syrian official said Saturday that President Bashar Assad was sending a delegation to Daraa to offer his condolences to families of the victims.

One of the activists in Damascus said Daraa residents were angered when the delegation went to offer condolences, and took to the streets in massive numbers.

He said thousands of people were chanting "Those who kill their people are traitors!"

The human rights group said that Syrian authorities have randomly arrested tens of people who participated in Friday's protests in at least five cities, including the coastal town of Banyas, Homs and the capital Damascus.

Ammar Qurabi, who heads the National Organization for Human Rights, said those arrested were charged with writing anti-government slogans. He called on the government to immediately release the arrested and fire the interior minister.

A Syrian official had acknowledged only two deaths in Friday's violence and said that authorities would bring those responsible to trial. The official said that even if an investigation shows security officers were guilty, they will be put on trial "no matter how high their rank is."

The violence was the worst since 2004 when clashes that began in the northeastern city of Qamishli between Syrian Kurds and security forces left at least 25 people dead and some 100 injured.

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