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Three wounded as gunshots disperse anti-govt protest in Syria's Sweida

BEIRUT (Reuters) -Three people were wounded on Wednesday when bullets were sprayed at anti-government protesters in the southern Syrian city of Sweida, activists and local journalists said, in the first reported use of violence in weeks-long demonstrations there.

Activists, who have been taking to the streets to call for President Bashar al-Assad to step down over worsening living conditions, accused members of the ruling Ba'ath party of firing. Reuters could not independently confirm this.

In a video posted online by the Sweida24 activist collective, men could be seen running away from the entrance of a building as around two dozen gunshots were heard.

The caption identified the building as the local headquarters for the Ba'ath party and said protesters had been trying to close it down. Demonstrators temporarily forced its closure in late August.

Sweida24 said the three wounded people were being treated at hospitals.

Conflict erupted in Syria in 2011 with rallies against Assad in the country's south and quickly morphed into an all-out war that has left hundreds of thousands dead and displaced millions.

Assad recaptured most of the country with help from his allies Russia and Iran. Even with frontlines calmer, the country's economy remains in tatters and its humanitarian needs have skyrocketed.

Still, open criticism of the government was extremely rare in Assad-held areas until the government's decision to lift fuel subsidies last month, prompted fresh protests concentrated in Sweida.

The spiritual head of Syria's Druze community, Sheikh Hikmat Hajri, on Wednesday blamed "corrupt" security forces for the incident, which he said would not deter protests.

"The main thing is restraint, and we won't give up on our peaceful demands. The street is with us. ... (We will stay) a day or two or a month or years," Hajri said.

In the past, Druze community leaders have heeded calls by authorities to defuse protests. But their support for the recent rallies has encouraged Druze, who had stayed on the sidelines, to join the protests, organisers and residents said.

(Reporting by Maya Gebeily in Beirut and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Mark Potter and Mark Porter)