DAMASCUS, Syria — A scenic seaside city echoed with gunfire Saturday as protesters defied government forces in Syria's second day of nationwide unrest, burning tires, attacking businesses and setting the offices of the ruling party aflame.
At least two people were killed by rooftop snipers in the religiously mixed Mediterranean city of Latakia, officials said, and President Bashar Assad's government of minority Alawite Muslims blamed a major Sunni cleric for inciting the unrest.
Sectarian divisions are a deeply sensitive topic in Syria, where Assad has used increased economic freedom and prosperity to win the allegiance of the prosperous Sunni Muslim merchant classes while punishing dissenters with arrest, imprisonment and physical abuse.
Assad has placed his fellow Alawites, adherents of a mystical offshoot of Shiite Islam, into most positions of power in Syria. He has built a close relationship with Iran, allowing the Shiite powerhouse to extend its influence into Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, where it provides money and weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah militants.
The surge of anti-government unrest in the Arab world has until now threatened almost exclusively regimes seen as allies of the U.S. and Western powers. Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain have maintained warm relations with Washington, and even Libya had growing ties with Britain, Italy and the rest of Europe.
The unrest in Syria, which exploded nationwide Friday after roiling the southern agricultural city of Deraa for a week, is a new and highly unpredictable element of the Arab Spring, one that could both weaken a foe of the West and cause dangerous instability in one of the more fragile and potentially chaotic countries of the Mideast, experts said. Syrian troops and soldiers opened fire in at least six cities, towns and villages Friday, killing some 15 protesters, according to witnesses, activists and footage posted on social networking sites.
"We are in for a long, grueling civil conflict," said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official who worked on Mideast peace negotiations in six administrations. "The black box in Syria, once you open it up, has some very nasty stuff inside."
Dozens of people protested in Latakia before attacking the Baath party's offices in Syria's main Mediterranean port — a tourist draw renowned for its sandy beaches and resorts, said Ammar Qurabi, an exile in Egypt who heads Syria's National Organization for Human Rights.
Home to some half a million people, Latakia is a mix of Sunnis in its urban core, Alawites living in villages on the outskirts and small minorities of Christians, ethnic Turks and other groups.
A Syrian activist in touch with protesters in Latakia said hundreds had been demonstrating there since Friday evening, burning tires and shouting "Freedom!" A few protesters were attacking cars and shops, the activist said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Syrian presidential advisor Bouthaina Shaaban blamed a renowned Sunni Muslim cleric for the unrest in Latakia, saying Qatar-based Sheik Youssef al-Qaradawi had incited Latakia's Sunnis to revolt with his sermon in Doha on Friday. Al-Qaradawi, who has millions of followers around the world and is seen as one of most influential voices in Sunni Islam, told his audience, "Today the train of revolutions arrived at a station that was inevitable it would reach: the station of Syria."
"Syria is like the others — and it is more deserving than others of these revolutions," he said. "When there are those who are killed, know that the revolution has been victorious!"
Shabaan said those words were responsible for the unrest in Latakia.
"There was nothing (in Lattakia) before Qaradawi's sermon on Friday," she told reporters in Damascus. "Qaradawi's words were a clear and honest invitation for sectarian strife."
Shaaban said that a group of Palestinians had come into Latakia from a refugee camp with weapons and opened fire, killing a policeman and two protesters.
"These are not peaceful protests demanding accelerated reforms ... what is happening in Syria now is an attempt to sow civil strife," she told reporters in Damascus.
She told reporters that demonstrators had also attacked a police station and offices of the Baath party in the town of Tafas, six miles (10 kilometers) north of the city of Daraa, epicenter of more than a week of anti-government protests.
A resident of Latakia who spoke to The Associated Press from home reported hearing gunfire Saturday evening but could not say where it was coming from. Shaaban said that an "armed group" had occupied the roofs of some buildings in Latakia and was shooting randomly at citizens.
A Syrian official told The Associated Press that two passersby were killed and two others wounded in Latakia by sniper fire from rooftops. He denied that the army had opened fire on protesters.
A hospital official in Latakia also said there were two dead and two wounded. He declined to give any other details.
Footage on a Facebook site run by Syrian activists showed what it said were the dead and wounded in Latakia. Young men carried one man by his limbs through a street, then another. They laid the second man limp in the street.
"It's the military police!" one shouted.
Footage from an opposition Syrian news agency uploaded onto YouTube claimed to show another man killed in Latakia.
Men screamed, "Oh God! Oh God!" as they laid the body of the young man on the floor, his face smeared with blood and a gaping hole close to his jawline.
The authenticity of the footage could not be independently confirmed.
Assad appeared to be trying to appease demonstrators in mostly Sunni Daraa, pulling back police and soldiers. His government also released hundreds of political prisoners in an attempt to appease demonstrators furious about the violent government crackdown on dissent.
A resident told The Associated Press by telephone that security forces had withdrawn to the outskirts of Daraa, where protests demanding the release of youths arrested for spraying anti-government graffiti have spiraled into daily confrontations with security forces, who have repeatedly opened fire.
The Daraa resident said more than 1,000 people were holding a silent sit-in at the al-Omari mosque, the epicenter of the protests. Protesters used the mosque as a refuge and ad hoc medical center until they were driven out in a government assault on Wednesday. They retook the mosque during clashes with government forces on Friday, witnesses said.
The clashes erupted after protesters attacked a statue of late President Hafez Assad in Daraa's main square, witnesses said. The Daraa resident said the statue had been knocked down, a giant picture of President Bashar Assad, the late leader's son, had been torn apart.
A video posted on the main Facebook page used by Syrian pro-democracy activists showed a crowd of young men in Deraa climbing onto the base and trying to shake it from its perch, then rushing toward a nearby building, some throwing what appear to be stones. Suddenly, automatic weapons fire breaks out and the video ends.
A resident told The Associated Press that he saw two bodies and many wounded people brought to Daraa's main hospital after the shooting.
A human rights activist said authorities had released 260 political prisoners. Abdul-Karim Rihawi, who heads the Syrian Human Rights League, said most of those released on Saturday were Islamists and 14 Kurdish detainees were also let free. Most had been imprisoned at Saidnaya, a prison in a Damascus suburb that houses political detainees. He said no further details were immediately available and there was no official confirmation.
Rihawi called the move a "positive step" and urged authorities to release all political detainees.