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Daraa is a province of some 300,000 people near the Jordanian border that has suffered greatly from years of drought.

The unrest there started with the arrest last week of a group of students who sprayed anti-government graffiti on walls in the main city of Daraa, some 80 miles south of the capital, Damascus.

Demonstrations calling for the students’ release swelled into calls for political freedoms, and security forces killed at least seven people in attempts to quash them, according to witnesses and activists.

The Syrian government fired the governor of the southern province of Daraa but failed to quell popular anger, and on Tuesday the protests reached the village of Nawa, where hundreds of people marched demanding reforms, activist said.

So far, none of the slogans used by protesters has called for the ouster of President Bashar Assad, who became the head of Syria’s minority Alawite ruling elite in 2000 after the death of his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad.

Daraa, like most of Syria, is predominantly Sunni Muslim.

On Wednesday, Abdul-Karim al-Rihawi, head of the Arab League for Human Rights, said several prominent activists have been arrested in the past two days, including well-known writer Loay Hussein. Mr. Hussein had issued a statement calling for freedom of peaceful protests and expressed solidarity with the Daraa protesters.

Mr. al-Rihawi said security agents picked up Mr. Hussein from his home in Damascus on Tuesday and confiscated his computer.

He said another activist, Issa al-Masalmi, was arrested in Daraa.

Also Wednesday, authorities said that six women who were detained last week after protesting in front of the Interior Ministry in central Damascus would be released Wednesday. The women were among 32 people, most of them relatives of political detainees in Syria, who were detained last Wednesday and charged by a prosecutor with hurting the state’s image.

Mr. al-Rihawi said the women still would have to stand trial despite their release.

Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed from Beirut