Syrians tear down poster of Assad in Sweida as protests swell

People take part in a protest in Sweida

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Demonstrators in the southern Syrian city of Sweida tore down a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad on Friday as anti-government protests that began three weeks ago swelled with crowds coming in from surrounding villages.

In footage posted on activist pages, a group of men could be seen ripping a banner portraying Assad's face that was hanging above the local branch of the Farmers' Union.

They then proceeded to weld shut the doors of the offices.

Criticism of Assad has been growing in Sweida since demonstrations began in mid-August over the removal of fuel subsidies, the latest in a string of measures that have put a strain on people suffering from an economic meltdown.

Sweida is capital of a province of the same name that is home to most of Syria's minority Druze sect. The city remained in government hands throughout the civil war and was largely spared the violence seen elsewhere.

Open criticism of the government has been rare in government-controlled areas of the country, but the economic situation has prompted public discontent that is increasingly directed at Assad.

In Sweida city, hundreds gathered in Karama Square on Friday as the protests, carrying the multi-coloured Druze flag.

"We raised our voices and Assad ran in fear!" the crowds chanted. "Hey Bashar, we don't want you!"

Earlier this week, demonstrators tore down a portrait of Bashar's father, former President Hafez al-Assad, that had been hanging on a government building and smashed a bust of his head, slapping it with their shoes.

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.

(Reporting by Maya Gebeily; Editing by Frances Kerry)