Anti-government protests spread in southern Syria

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Crowds chanted slogans against the Syrian government in nearly a dozen towns and villages in the southern province of Sweida on Tuesday, activists and monitors said, as protests against the authorities' new economic measures spread.

"The people want the downfall of the regime!" a large demonstration shouted in unison at one protest in the provincial capital of Sweida, according to Suweida 24, an activist collective reporting on the protests.

A boy in another town carried a cardboard sign that read, "Why did you make the crisps more expensive?" - a reference to rising food prices.

Syria is in a deep economic crisis that saw its currency plunge to a record 15,500 Syrian pounds to the dollar last week in a rapidly accelerating free-fall. It traded at 47 pounds to the dollar at the start of the conflict 12 years ago.

Sweida, which is home to most of the country's Druze community and has remained in government hands throughout the war, was largely spared the unrest seen elsewhere. Open criticism of the government remains rare in the areas it controls.

Anti-government rallies broke out in the province last week over gasoline price hikes that put further strain on families already struggling to feed themselves.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said the rallies had spread over the last week with 11 cities, towns and villages in the province now taking part.

In several areas, public institutions shut down in their entirety, the Observatory said.

Syrian authorities have not publicly commented on the protests. The pro-government daily Al-Watan reported on Tuesday that demonstrators had disrupted the work of banks, government institutions and bakeries.

(Reporting by Maya Gebeily; Editing by Giles Elgood)