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Protests hit Druze city in Syria for fifth day

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) - Hundreds of Syrians in the mainly Druze city of Sweida took to the streets for a fifth consecutive day on Thursday, protesting at worsening economic conditions and demanding the departure of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

Residents converged to a main square of the southwestern city in protests sparked last week by sudden steep gasoline price hikes, witnesses and civic activists said.

Prominent formerly pro-government Druze religious leaders met on Thursday for the first time since the protests erupted, acknowledging the right to protest peacefully against government policies, but refrained from endorsing the widespread calls for Assad to step down.

"These protests are the righteous voice of the Syrian people," Sheikh Hikmat Hajri, the spiritual leader of Syria's Druze community, told followers. But he spoke against vandalism or the acts of violence seen last week when youths burnt tyres and blocked access to the city.

Protesters, who on Wednesday burnt a huge poster of Assad that hung in the main square, chanted "Go, go, Assad. We want to eat." Same chants could be heard at the start of pro-democracy protests in 2011 that were violently crushed by security forces and sparked a violent, an over-decade long conflict.

Security sources said the authorities in Damascus have been careful to avoid any escalation in Sweida.

The city has remained in government hands during the conflict and its Druze minority has long resisted being drawn into a civil war that pits mainly rebels drawn from Syria's majority Sunni population against Assad’s rule.

Syria is in the throes of a deep economic crisis that saw its currency collapse, leading to soaring prices for food and basic supplies and which Assad's government blames on Western sanctions.

Protests in Sweida fuel officials' concern they could spread to the Mediterranean coastal areas, strongholds of Assad's minority Alawite sect and where there have been recently rare calls by activists for a strike, security sources and diplomats said.

State media did not mention the protests but pro-government commentators have blamed foreign powers for fueling the unrest and warned of wider chaos if they persist.

"If the regime declares war on the province we will get into a cycle of bloodshed that we were spared that opens the door for all possibilities," said Ryan Marouf, a civic activist and editor of the local Suwayda 24 news website, told Reuters.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)