BEIRUT: Syrian security agents have arrested dozens of people after thousands took to the streets across the country in pro-democracy marches, activists said Saturday.
At least seven people were killed Friday as security forces cracked down on demonstrations, bringing the death toll from two weeks of protest to at least 79. Authorities began arresting people, mostly in and around the capital, Damascus, in the hours after the protests broke up and into early Saturday, activists said.
They asked that their names not be used for fear of reprisals.
The extraordinary wave of protests has proved the most serious challenge yet to the nearly five-decade rule of the Arab Socialist Baath Party, one of the most rigid regimes in the Middle East.
The government blamed Friday's bloodshed on "armed gangs." However, the state-run news agency acknowledged for the first time that Syria was seeing gatherings of people calling for reform.
The strength of the burgeoning protest movement is difficult to gauge because Syria has restricted media access and expelled journalists, making it difficult to determine the extent of the protests and how many people are turning out. Two Associated Press journalists were ordered to leave the country Friday with less than an hour's notice.
President Bashar Assad has made limited gestures of reform in the wake of the protests, but he has offered no specfics.
In his first public appearance Wednesday since the demonstrations began, he blamed a "foreign conspiracy" for the unrest. He then announced he was forming committees to look into civilian deaths and the possibility of replacing Syria's despised emergency laws, which have been in place for decades and allow security forces to arrest people without charge.
His reaction enraged many Syrians who hoped to see more serious concessions after the wave of protests in a country where any rumblings of dissent are crushed.
The unrest comes against the backdrop of revolutionary change across the wider Middle East, including Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.