BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian security forces launched a harsh crackdown Friday on protesters calling for political freedoms, killing at least five people and marking the gravest unrest in years in one of the most repressive states in the Mideast, according to accounts from activists and social media.
Mazen Darwish, a prominent Syrian activist in Damascus, said at least five people were shot and killed when security forces tried to disperse hundreds of protesters in the southern town of Daraa, near the Jordanian border. He cited witnesses and hospital officials at the scene.
Friday's violence happened during one of several demonstrations across the country in Homs, Banyas and the capital, Damascus. But only the Daraa protest turned deadly, Darwish said.
Serious disturbances in Syria would be a major expansion of the wave of unrest tearing through the Arab world for more than a month in the wake of pro-democracy uprisings that overthrew the autocratic leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. Syria, a predominantly Sunni country ruled by minority Alawites, has a history of brutally crushing dissent — including a notorious massacre in which former President Hafez Assad crushed a Muslim fundamentalist uprising in the city of Hama in 1982, killing thousands.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said he was concerned about the reported deaths in Daraa and said the use of lethal force against peaceful demonstrators was unacceptable.
The government's TV channel and news agency said "infiltrators" in Daraa caused "chaos and riots" and smashed cars and public and private property before they attacked riot police. It said a similar demonstration in the coastal town of Banyas dispersed without incident.
Syrian President Bashar Assad inherited power from his father in 2000 after three decades of authoritarian rule.