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Women play 'prominent' role as hundreds protest in Syria

Syrians protest in the southern city of Sweida, the latest in a flurry of anti-government demonstrations that have rocked the province for more than a month
— Sweida (Syria) (AFP)

Hundreds of Syrians protested Friday in the southern city of Sweida, as women play a growing role in the anti-government demonstrations that have rocked the province for over a month, activists said.

Peaceful protests have swept Sweida province, the heartland of the country's Druze minority, since President Bashar al-Assad's government ended fuel subsidies last month.

The move dealt a heavy blow to Syrians reeling from more than a decade of war and economic woes.

An activist and a witness told AFP that between 2,000 and 2,500 people took part in Friday's protests, some chanting anti-government slogans and waving Druze flags.

"I felt a certain strength, surrounded by women and chanting against Bashar," Sama, 32, told AFP.

One male protester carried a large banner with a list of demands, including a transitional government, a "new constitution" and for displaced people and detainees to return home.

Another woman protester, Sana, 50, said: "Bashar must leave. One family has dominated during my entire lifetime," she added, also declining to provide her surname due to security concerns.

Civil war erupted in Syria after Assad's government crushed peaceful protests in 2011.

The war has killed more than 500,000 people and displaced millions.

Wajiha, in her twenties, said she walked half an hour in the heat to Sweida's main square, carrying anti-government banners for daily protests that have been going on for weeks.

Women from Sweida have been present at rallies since the conflict broke out, she told AFP by telephone, but "the difference today is that women are not only demonstrating, they are planning and organising the movement".

This includes coordinating chants, making banners and communicating with those holding protests in nearby towns, she said.

Sweida has been mostly spared from fighting during the conflict, and has faced only a few jihadist attacks, which were repelled.

Protests against deteriorating economic conditions have erupted sporadically in the province in recent years.

Syrian security services have a limited presence in Sweida, and Damascus has turned a blind eye to Druze men refusing to undertake compulsory military service.

Since last month, smaller protests have also taken place in neighbouring Daraa province, the cradle of Syria's 2011 uprising.

Followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam, the Druze made up less than three percent of Syria's pre-war population. They have largely kept out of the conflict.

The Assad family has been in power for more than half a century, ever since Bashar al-Assad's father Hafez seized power in a 1970 coup.