* Soldiers with AK-47s in streets
* Death toll from Wednesday's attack up to 37
* France, Britain call for dialogue
* Adviser to Assad says "important decisions" coming
(Adds remarks by presidential adviser, commentator)
By Suleiman al-Khalidi
DERAA, Syria, March 24 (Reuters) - At least 37 people were
killed in the Syrian city of Deraa, a hospital official said on
Thursday, in an escalation in protests which have prompted the
government to promise to listen to protesters' demands.
Buthaina Shaaban, an adviser to President Bashar al-Assad,
told reporters the demands of the people of Deraa were
"justified ... and under study ... The coming period will
witness important decisions on all levels".
Security forces opened fire on hundreds of youths at the
northern entrance to Deraa on Wednesday, witnesses said, after
nearly a week of protests in which seven civilians had already
been killed since Friday.
The main hospital in Deraa, in southern Syria near the
Jordanian border, had received the bodies of at least 37
protesters killed on Wednesday, a hospital official said.
Around 20,000 people marched on Thursday in the funerals for
nine of those killed, chanting freedom slogans and denying
official accounts that infiltrators and "armed gangs" were
behind the killings and violence in Deraa.
"Traitors do not kill their own people ... God, Syria,
Freedom. The blood of martyrs is not spilt in waste!" they
chanted in Deraa's southern cemetery.
As Syrian soldiers armed with AK-47s roamed the streets of
the southern city, residents emptied shops of staples and basic
goods and said they feared Assad's government was intent on
crushing the revolt by force.
Assad, a close ally of Iran, key player in neighbouring
Lebanon and supporter of militant groups opposed to Israel, had
earlier dismissed demands for reform in Syria, a country of 20
million people run by the Baath Party since a 1963 coup.
A government statement had blamed "armed gangs" for the
violence in Deraa.
Syrian political analyst Thabet Salem said of the government
promise of "important decisions" that there might be a move to
allow free elections to elect the "Assembly of the People".
The assembly is a rubberstamp parliament that has been under
Baath Party control for decades.
"The remarks are vague but positive. Only radical change
will set Syria on the right course," he said.
MEMORIES OF HAMA
Some people recalled the 1982 massacre in Hama, when Assad's
father, Hafez al-Assad, sent troops to the conservative
religious city to crush the armed wing of the Muslim
Brotherhood. Human rights groups say at least 20,000 died.
"If the rest of Syria does not erupt on Friday, we will be
facing annihilation," said one resident in Deraa, referring to
Friday prayers, the only time citizens are allowed to gather en
masse without government permission.
The environment today, however, is very different from that
of 1982, when Syria was supported by the Soviet Union and its
minority Alawite rulers were firming up their control of the
country against religious and secular opponents without serious
criticism from the international community.
Assad, who is facing mounting criticism by the West for the
bloodshed in Deraa, "is not against any Syrian citizen", Syrian
Vice President Farouk al-Shara was quoted as saying this week.
The protesters in Deraa, a mainly Sunni city, have shouted
slogans against the government's alliance with Shi'ite Iran,
breaking a taboo on criticising Syrian foreign policy.
Assad, who promised reforms when he became president in
2000, has ignored mounting demands to lift emergency law, allow
freedom of speech and assembly, free political prisoners, make
the judiciary independent, curb the control of the pervasive
security apparatus and end the Baath Party's monopoly on power.
Syria's ruling elite from the minority Alawite sect have
presented themselves as a source of stability in a mainly Sunni
country made up of many sects and ethnicities including Shi'ites
and Christians. The Baath Party has a secular ideology.
The slogans of the protesters in Deraa, where society is
predominantly tribal and conservative, have however also
emphasised the unity of Syria.
The city is dominated by big families and earns significant
income from remittances from Syrians working overseas. Both the
Baath Party and the army have recruited heavily from Deraa.
SOLDIERS PATROL STREETS
The army has so far taken a secondary role -- mostly manning
checkpoints -- in confronting demonstrations. Secret police and
special police units wearing all black have been more visible in
Deraa since the protests erupted last Friday.
Witnesses said hundreds of soldiers patrolled Deraa's main
streets as heavy rain fell, with scores manning intersections to
prevent public gatherings. Travellers on a main highway near
Deraa said they saw convoys of trucks carrying up to 2,000
soldiers heading to Deraa on Wednesday night.
In a separate attack in the early hours of Wednesday,
security forces fired at protesters in the vicinity of the Omari
mosque in Deraa's old quarter, residents said.
Two people killed in that attack, a man and a woman called
Ibtissam Masalmeh, were buried in Deraa on Wednesday. Thousands
marched in the funeral chanting calls for freedom, and -- for
the first time since protests broke out on Friday -- slogans
against Iran and Lebanon's armed Shi'ite movement Hezbollah.
"Honourable Syrians don't rely on Iran or Hezbollah," they
YouTube footage showed what was purported to be the street
in front of the mosque before the attack, with sound of gunfire
audible and a person inside the mosque grounds yelling: "Brother
don't shoot. This country is big enough for me and you".
The United Nations and the United States condemned the
violence. France, which occupied Syria from 1925 to 1946, urged
the ruling elite to open up to dialogue and democratic change.
Britain called on Syria to respect people's right to
peaceful protest and to take action on their grievances. Germany
said the violence must end immediately.
The Baath Party has banned opposition and enforced emergency
laws since 1963. But the wave of Arab unrest which has toppled
leaders in Tunisia and Egypt presents Assad with the biggest
challenge to his rule since he succeeded his father Hafez
al-Assad, who ruled Syria for 30 years until his death in 2000.
(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; writing by Khaled
Yacoub Oweis in Damascus, editing by Myra MacDonald)
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