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Syrians chant 'No more fear!' during anti-government march

A Syrian security man, sets Syrian flags through a broken window of the anti-drug police office that was destroyed by Syrian anti-government protesters, in the southern city of Daraa, Syria, Monday March 21, 2011. Mourners chanting "No more fear!" have marched through a Syrian city where anti-government protesters had deadly confrontations with security forces in recent days. The violence in Daraa, a city of about 300,000 near the border with Jordan, was fast becoming a major challenge for President Bashar Assad, who tried to contain the situation by freeing detainees and promising to fire officials responsible for the violence.

Hussein Malla/Hussein Malla/AP

Syrians chanting "No more fear!" held a defiant march Monday after a deadly government crackdown failed to quash three days of massive protests in a southern city - an extraordinary outpouring in a country that brutally suppresses dissent.

Riot police armed with batons chased away the small group Monday without incident, but traces of earlier, larger demonstrations were everywhere: burned-out and looted government buildings, a dozen torched vehicles, an office of the ruling Baath party with its windows knocked out. Protesters burned an office of the telecommunications company Syriatel, which is owned in part by the president's cousin.

The unrest in the city of Daraa started Friday after security troops fired at protesters, killing five people. Over the next two days, two more people died and authorities sealed the city, allowing people out but not in as thousands of enraged protesters set fire to government buildings and massed in their thousands around the city.

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Among the victims was 11-year-old Mundhir Masalmi, who died Monday after suffering tear gas inhalation a day earlier, an activist told The Associated Press. The activist asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisals.

On Monday, an Associated Press team was allowed into Daraa, accompanied by two government minders who kept them away from protesters and would not allow photographs of the demonstrations. Army checkpoints circled the city and plainclothes officers were dispatched in key areas.

A lawyer told The Associated Press that criminal records were destroyed as people ransacked and burned the two-story Palace of Justice, which houses a criminal court and a police station. Every room in the building was burned and more than 20 computers were stolen, lawyer Samir Kafri said.

Municipal workers hosed down charred courtrooms covered in soot and ash, and security officers hung Syrian flags outside broken, scorched windows.

The violence in Daraa has fast become a major challenge for President Bashar Assad, who has tried to contain the situation by freeing detainees and promising to fire officials responsible for the violence.

One human rights activist said pro-democracy demonstrations spread Monday to the towns of Jasim and Inkhil, near Daraa where thousands of people protested to demand reforms.

Syria, a predominantly Sunni country ruled by minority Alawites, has a history of suppressing dissent. Mr. Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez, crushed a Muslim fundamentalist uprising in 1982, killing thousands.

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A city of about 300,000 near the border with Jordan, Daraa is a Sunni city that has been relatively peaceful, although it is suffering sustained economic effects from a drought.

Prolonged disturbances in Syria would be a major expansion of the unrest tearing through the Arab world for more than a month after pro-democracy uprisings that overthrew the autocratic leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.

But protesters in Syria would face a tough time trying to pull off a serious uprising along those lines.

Despite the political repression and rights abuses, Mr. Assad remains popular among many in the Arab world, in particular, because he is seen as one of the few Arab leaders willing to stand up to Israel.

It is also not clear how much support any uprising would have within the country. A few earlier attempts to organize protests through social networking sites fell flat.

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