Demonstrations erupt across Syria as unrest sweeps on

Protests erupted in at least three areas of Syria yesterday in the gravest unrest in years in one of the Middle East's most repressive states, it was reported.

The government's news agency said "infiltrators" in the southern town of Deraa caused "chaos and riots" and smashed cars and property before they attacked riot police who chased them off. It said a similar demonstration in the coastal town of Banyas dispersed without incident.

Meanwhile, amateur video footage posted on YouTube and Twitter appeared to show large groups of protesters in several cities.

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.

A YouTube video claiming to be shot in Banyas showed several thousand demonstrators gathering around a building with a Syrian flag flying from its roof. Amidst chants of "Freedom" and "There is only one God", one man shouted out a list of protesters' demands, ranging from freedom of expression to allowing Muslim women with face veils to attend school.

In the capital, plainclothes security officers forcefully dispersed about a dozen protesters calling for more freedoms in the country, human rights activists said earlier in the day.

The activists said the protest occurred in the yard of Damascus' Ummayad Mosque shortly after Friday prayers. At least two protesters were detained, they said. The protest was the third small rally broken up in Damascus this week.

Also yesterday, eight Syrian human rights groups said a prosecutor had questioned and charged dozens of demonstrators with hurting the state's image. The groups said the 32 activists denied the charges.

They included four relatives of political prisoner Kamal Labawani.