Protests return to Syrian cities

Anti-government protesters took to the streets in Syria on Friday for the third time in a week despite the threat of beatings and arrest.

In Damascus, protests erupted after noon prayers at the Umayyad Mosque in the old city. Dozens of protesters were met by police and plainclothes security officers, and several were beaten and arrested.

In Dara, a city close to Syria's southern border with Jordan, witnesses said protesters smashed statues and set fires. A video on YouTube showed fire brigades using water cannons to disperse crowds.

The protesters there chanted, "Makhlouf, you are a thief," a reference to Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of the president and owner of many of the country's biggest businesses. News agencies said several people were killed.

The Associated Press reported that a YouTube video appeared to show several thousand demonstrators in the northwestern port of Baniyas gathering around an old stone building with a Syrian flag fluttering from its roof.

A cluster of men stood on its balcony with a loudspeaker. Amid chants of "Freedom!" and "There is only one God!," one man shouted out a list of demands including freedom for Muslim women attending school to wear veils.

On Thursday, authorities charged 32 activists with damaging the state's reputation. They were arrested during protests the previous day.

Demonstrations on Tuesday and Wednesday were called by rights groups and families of people detained without trial for what they say are political reasons. They promised further protests unless the Interior Ministry released information on the detainees.

State television blamed "infiltrators" for causing "chaos and riots."

A special correspondent in Damascus contributed to this report.

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