Syrians rally in south against Assad, economic decline

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with Sky News Arabia in Damascus

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Hundreds gathered in southern Syria on Friday urging President Bashar al-Assad to step down, capping nearly two weeks of demonstrations that erupted over poor living conditions but have spiralled into renewed calls for political change.

"Bashar out, Syria free!" shouted a large crowd in the southern Druze city of Sweida. "Syria is not a farm, we are not sheep," read another poster.

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

Demonstrations broke out in Sweida in August over the removal of fuel subsidies. Home province of most of Syria's Druze community, Sweida remained in government hands throughout the war and was largely spared the violence seen elsewhere.

Open criticism of the government remained rare in the areas it controls but as the economic situation grew worse, the discontent has gone public.

Friday's turnout was large despite apparent divisions within the Druze leadership over the demonstrations. Some Druze sheikhs have criticized protesters' calls for Assad to step down and say that any improvement to the socioeconomic situation must come through dialogue.

Dozens also gathered on Friday in the province of Daraa, where the 2011 protests kicked off. They carried the three-star flag emblematic of Syria's uprising, as well as signs criticising the role of Iran, a key Assad ally.

Residents of other government-held parts of Syria - where restrictions are tighter - have made more discrete gestures of protest to avoid detection by government forces.

In the coastal province of Tartus on Thursday, some residents held up small postcards reading "Syria belongs to us, not to the (ruling) Ba'ath party", according to photographs posted on activists' social media pages. A large billboard portraying Assad's picture could be seen in the background.

(Reporting by Maya Gebeily; Editing by Nick Macfie)