Renewed anti-government protests in the southwestern Syrian city of Sweida have turned violent, with reports saying at least three people were wounded amid gunfire.
Waving the flag of Syria’s minority Druze sect, demonstrators in recent weeks have been taking to the streets of the government-controlled city to call for President Bashar al-Assad to step down over poor economic conditions.
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On Wednesday, a video posted online by the Sweida24 activist collective showed men running away from the entrance of a building in Sweida as about two dozen gunshots were heard.
The caption identified the building as the local headquarters for the ruling Ba’ath party and said protesters had been trying to close it down. Demonstrators temporarily forced its closure in late August.
Activists accused members of the Ba’ath party of opening fire, Reuters news agency reported. The allegation could not be independently verified.
Sweida24 said the three wounded people were being treated at hospitals.
Conflict broke out in Syria as a largely unarmed uprising against al-Assad in March 2011, but swiftly morphed into a full-blown war that killed hundreds of thousands of people and turned millions of others into refugees.
Al-Assad has since recaptured most of the country with help from his allies, Russia and Iran. Even with front lines calmer, the country’s economy remains in tatters and its humanitarian needs have skyrocketed.
Sweida is the capital of a governorate of the same name that is home to most of Syria’s Druze, who made up less than three percent of the country’s pre-war population. The city remained in government hands throughout the conflict and was largely spared the violence seen elsewhere.
But criticism of al-Assad has been growing in Sweida since demonstrations began in mid-August over the end of fuel subsidies, the latest in a string of measures that have put a strain on people suffering from an economic meltdown.
Sheikh Hikmat Hajri, the spiritual head of Syria’s Druze community, on Wednesday blamed “corrupt” security forces for the firing incident, which he said would not deter protests.
“The main thing is restraint, and we won’t give up on our peaceful demands. The street is with us … [We will stay] a day or two or a month or years,” Hajri said.
In the past, Druze community leaders have heeded calls by authorities to defuse protests. But their support for the recent rallies has encouraged Druze people who had stayed on the sidelines to join the protests, organisers and residents said.