DAMASCUS: Thousands of mourners at a funeral for a Syrian killed in anti-government protests burned a ruling Baath party building and a police station on Saturday as authorities freed 260 prisoners in a bid to placate reformists.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was facing the deepest crisis of his 11 years in power after security forces fired on protesters on Friday, adding to a death toll that rights groups have said now numbers in the dozens.
Mosques across Deraa announced the names of "martyrs" whose funerals would be held in the southern city and on Saturday hundreds were gathering in the main square chanting for freedom.
Three bare-chested young men climbed onto the rubble of a statue of late President Hafez al-Assad, which protesters pulled down on Friday in a scene that recalled the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Iraq in 2003 by U.S. troops.
A witness said they had cardboard signs reading "the people want the downfall of the regime," a refrain heard in uprisings across the Arab world from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen.
In nearby Tafas, mourners in the funeral procession of Kamal Baradan, who was killed on Friday in Deraa, set fire to the Baath party building and the police station, residents said.
A human rights lawyer said on Saturday that 260 prisoners, mostly Islamists, had been released after completing at least three-quarters of their sentences.
Dozens of people have been killed over the past week around the southern city of Deraa, medical officials said. There were reports of more than 20 new deaths on Friday.
Such demonstrations would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago in this most tightly controlled of Arab countries.
But the unrest came to a head after police detained more than a dozen schoolchildren for writing graffiti inspired by slogans used by other pro-democracy demonstrators abroad.
Amnesty International put the death toll in and around Deraa in the past week at 55 at least. Shops reopened in Deraa on Saturday, and security forces were not in evidence.
There was a chorus of international condemnation of the shootings of demonstrators.
But analysts said foreign nations were likely to tread carefully around Syria, which has a close alliance with Iran and links to Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas and Lebanese Shi'ite political and military group Hezbollah.
Bordered by Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, Syria and its 22 million people sit at the heart of a complex web of conflict in the Middle East.
There were also protests on Friday in Damascus and in Hama, a northern city where in 1982 the forces of Assad's father killed thousands of people and razed much of the old quarter to put down an armed uprising by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
Abdelhalim Khaddam, a former vice president who resigned and defected from the ruling Baath Party in 2005, said on Saturday "the blood of our martyrs will burn this regime."
New York-based Human Rights Watch said on Friday Syria's security forces should immediately stop using live ammunition against protesters in Deraa which is on the border with Jordan.
"President Bashar al-Assad's talk about reforms doesn't mean anything when his security forces are mowing down people who want to talk about them," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East and North Africa director.
Some believed the crackdown followed by talks could lead to reforms but many said a tipping point had been reached in Syria.
"We were under a lot of pressure from the oppressive authority, now when you pass by (security forces), nobody utters a word. They don't dare talk to the people. The people have no fear anymore," said Deraa resident, Abu Jassem.
The government has accused armed gangs of being behind the violence and blamed them for the killing of civilians.
Access for journalists was restricted, although a Reuters reporter in Deraa said tens of thousands of people who marched on Friday during funerals for demonstrators killed earlier in the week appeared largely to be unarmed and chanted for freedom.
The International Crisis Group think-tank said the 45-year-old, British-educated Assad could call on reserves of goodwill among the population to steer away from confrontation and introduce political and economic reforms.
"Syria is at what is rapidly becoming a defining moment for its leadership," the thinktank wrote on Friday. "There are only two options. One involves an immediate and inevitably risky political initiative that might convince the Syrian people that the regime is willing to undertake dramatic change.
"The other entails escalating repression, which has every chance of leading to a bloody and ignominious end."
Internally, rule by the Assads has favored the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, causing resentments among the Sunni Muslim majority.
Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, said that friction made many in the establishment wary of giving ground to demands for political freedoms and economic reforms.
"They are a basically reviled minority, the Alawites, and if they lose power, if they succumb to popular revolution, they will be hanging from the lamp posts," he said.
"They have absolutely no incentive to back off."
Former vice president, Khaddam, on Saturday called on "the armed forces to take the patriotic choice ... and to specify whether it is with the people or with the ruling family."
Khaddam, who does not enjoy wide support from the opposition due to his senior role during Assad's rule before his defection, was speaking on a video posted on the Beirut Observer website.
A serving Western diplomat said he had been surprised, however, by how far demonstrators had gone in taking to the streets to demand change. "They've crossed the fear line, which in Syria is remarkable," the diplomat said.
VOLLEYS OF BULLETS
On Friday in Deraa, a Reuters witness saw protesters haul down the statue of Assad's father who ruled for three decades until his death in 2000.
Security men in plain clothes then opened fire with rifles. Protesters poured fuel into the broken cast and set it alight.
In the town of Sanamein, which is in the same southern area of the country as Deraa, residents said 20 people were killed when gunmen opened fire on a crowd outside a building used by military intelligence -- part of an extensive security apparatus that has protected Baath party rule since 1963.
Thousands of Assad's supporters waved flags, marched and drove in cars around Damascus and other cities to proclaim their allegiance to the Baath party and to Assad, whose father took power in a coup in 1970.
Assad had promised on Thursday to look into granting Syrians greater freedoms in an attempt to defuse the outbreak of popular demands for political freedoms and an end to corruption.
He also pledged to look at ending an emergency law in place since 1963 and made an offer of large public pay rises. Demonstrators said they did not believe the promises, however.