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Protesters in Syria defy crackdown

Chanting Syrians have held a defiant march after a deadly government crackdown failed to crush three days of massive protests.

Riot police armed with batons chased away the small group without incident, but traces of earlier, larger demonstrations were everywhere: burned-out and looted government buildings, a dozen torched vehicles, an office of the ruling Baath party with its windows knocked out.

Protesters burned an office of the telecommunications company Syriatel, which is owned in part by the president's cousin.

The unrest in the city of Daraa started on Friday after troops fired at protesters, killing five people. Over the next two days, two more people died and authorities sealed the city, allowing people out but not in as enraged protesters set fire to government buildings and massed in their thousands around the city.

Among the victims was 11-year-old Mundhir Masalmi, who died after suffering tear gas inhalation a day earlier.

Criminal records were destroyed as people ransacked and burned the two-storey Palace of Justice, which houses a criminal court and a police station. Every room in the building was burned and more than 20 computers were stolen.

About a dozen lawyers who gathered outside the building said the attack on the court appeared to be organised as the attackers managed to destroy all files related to crimes such as drugs and arms dealings.

The violence in Daraa has fast become a major challenge for President Bashar Assad, who has tried to contain the situation by freeing detainees and promising to fire officials responsible for the violence.

Syria, a predominantly Sunni country ruled by minority Alawites, has a history of suppressing dissent. Mr Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez, crushed a Muslim fundamentalist uprising in 1982, killing thousands.

A city of about 300,000 near the border with Jordan, Daraa is a Sunni city that has been relatively peaceful, although it is suffering sustained economic effects from a drought. Many of the cities residents work in agriculture.

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