CAIRO — In an apparent effort to quell anger a day after a deadly crackdown on protesters, President Bashar al-Assad released hundreds of political prisoners Saturday and pulled back security forces from the southwestern city where Syria’s burgeoning unrest began last week.
On Friday, protests spread from Daraa to other towns and cities, including the capital, Damascus, in the biggest threat to the 45-year-old president since he assumed power in 2000. Security forces fired tear gas and in some places live ammunition into the crowds, killing at least 14 people, according to witnesses and activists.
On Saturday, Damascus remained tense but quiet, activists said, but protesters set fire to offices of the ruling party in southern and western Syria, the Associated Press reported, citing accounts by government officials, activists and witnesses. In Latakia, a religiously mixed city on the Mediterranean coast, crowds burned tires and attacked cars and shops, and officials said at least two people were killed there, the AP said.
“There is a kind of anger and tension,” said Abd el-Karim Rihawi, the head of the Syrian Human Rights League. Assad must implement reforms immediately, Rihawi added. “He has some time, and I think it will control the anger of the people.”
YouTube videos of the unrest that have been widely viewed on the Internet, suggesting that fear of Syria’s security forces is being eclipsed in many places by anger. In one video, protesters in Daraa rip a large portrait of Assad. Another from the city of Homs shows men destroying a portrait of the president’s late father, Hafez al-Assad.
On Saturday, at least 260 prisoners were released from the Sednaya military prison in Damascus, Rihawi said, adding that 14 were members of Syria’s Kurdish minority and the rest were Islamists. In Daraa and Sanamein, residents buried their dead.
“It’s a good start,” Rihawi said.
Over the 40 years of rule by the Assad family, Syria’s security forces have used an efficient machinery of repression. In 1982, Hafez al-Assad leveled the city of Hama to suppress an Islamic uprising there, killing between 17,000 and 40,000 people. Now, observers say, his son faces a choice: emulate his father or implement the demands of the protesters, which include lifting the emergency law, freeing political prisoners and allowing free assembly.
So far, most protesters have not been demanding Assad’s ouster.
The government blamed Friday’s violence on armed gangs they say are influenced by foreign elements. Journalists and foreign observers have limited access to Syria.
“This is the most serious unrest since Bashar’s been in office,” said a Western diplomat in Syria who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. The diplomat noted, however, that the Syrian unrest was not comparable in scale or intensity to the uprisings in Egypt or Tunisia, which gives Assad’s government an opening.
“The government has a margin of time here,” the diplomat said. “They have time to make reforms.”