The civil unrest in Syria appears to be worsening

According to media reports, at least 20 people were killed in the southern town of Deraa by government troops as part of the state’s brutal crackdown on protesters.

There are more than 20 martyrs .... they [security forces] opened fire haphazardly, a witness told Al Jazeera.

Reuters also reported heavy gunfire in the city.

Deraa has been the focal point of anti-government agitation for at least a week. Government soldiers have previously killed unarmed protesters in the city and have maintained a very heavy security presence there.

Another report, unconfirmed, said that a group of protesters trying to enter Deraa were killed in a nearby village by security forces.

Protesters are seeking democratic reforms and more political freedoms in a country that has been under emergency laws for almost a half-century under the brutal regime of the Baath party. Bashir al-Assad and his father have ruled Syria since 1963.

Al Jazeera's correspondent in Damascus said Syrian troops apparently opened fire after people set a fire to a statue of the late Hafez al-Assad, Bashir’s father.

Eyewitnesses are telling us that when some young men tried to burn down the statue of the late president the security forces started firing live ammunition at the protesters and there were some injured, we think there is one casualty, but we are trying to verify,” the Al Jazeera reporter said.

However, an official of the Syrian information ministry told Al Jazeera that troops were ordered not to shoot at protesters no matter what happens.

But things took on a different hue because inside these peaceful demonstrations there was another group of people who were armed ... and were shooting at the security forces and were shooting at other citizens in Deraa,” the official claimed.

At the end of the day this became a matter of national security.

Protesters strongly dispute the government’s assertions, saying no one among the crowd was armed.
The protest against the regime has spread to other parts of Syria.

Reuters also reported that at least 200 people marched in the centre of the capitol Damascus after Friday prayers to support the people of Deraa. Other rallies were held in Hama and Tel.

In Damascus, hundreds of people reportedly marched on King Faisal Street chanting: Peaceful, Peaceful, God, Syria, Freedom.

Yesterday the government said it might consider ending emergency rule and legalize the existence of political parties.

Soon after making that announcement, protesters who had been arrested in Deraa were released.
Dozens, perhaps hundreds of people, have been killed since the unrest started but it is impossible to independently verify and confirm the number of fatalities, given the extreme limitations placed on media.