Two dead as protesters, police clash in southern Syria
A protester and a policeman were killed Sunday in Syria's southern city of Sweida as security forces cracked down on a rare demonstration by hundreds against deteriorating living conditions.
Tensions were high in the regime-held city after protesters threw rocks at a government building and stormed it, removing a large picture of President Bashar al-Assad from its facade, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
"At least one protester and one police officer were killed," Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
The protester was shot dead when security forces opened fire after demonstrators entered the building, he said, adding that government forces have fanned out in the city, dispersing protesters.
Local news outlet Suwayda24 confirmed the two deaths and said four others were taken to hospital with gunshot wounds in the Druze-majority city.
The Sweida region south of Damascus is the heartland of the Druze, who made up less than three percent of Syria's pre-war population and have largely kept out of the country's civil war.
That war has killed nearly half a million people since it began in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests, fragmenting the country and causing economic collapse.
- 'Pursue the outlaws' -
Suwayda24 posted images on social media earlier in the day that showed protesters calling for the fall of the regime as security forces stood guard outside the building.
Other images showed a military vehicle on fire and burning tires on main streets of the city. Gunshots could be heard in some of the footage.
Syria's interior ministry said a "group of outlaws" killed one policeman while they tried to storm police headquarters.
Some protesters carried weapons, the ministry said.
"We will pursue the outlaws, and take legal measures against anyone who tries to tamper with the security and stability of the Sweida governorate and the safety of its citizens," the ministry said in a statement on Sunday.
State television said "lawbreakers" had stormed the provincial government building and "set fire to official documents and files".
Syria's economy has been pummeled by both its long-running civil war and Western sanctions against Damascus, and the value of the local currency has plummeted.
Ninety percent of the population now lives below the poverty line and 12.4 million people are food insecure, according to the United Nations.
Sweida and other cities have been hit hard by nationwide electricity rationing and chronic fuel shortages that severely hamper daily life.
The government in recent days announced further austerity measures, including more electricity rationing.
In February, hundreds took to the streets in Sweida to demand better living conditions and democratic rule, the Observatory said at the time. Smaller protests were held there in 2020.