By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) - Protesters demanding an end to authoritarian rule shut the ruling Baath party headquarters in the southwestern Syrian Druze city of Sweida as protests which entered their second week showed no signs of abating, civic activists and witnesses said.
Youths with welding machines sealed the gates of the building of the party led by President Bashar al Assad, which has been in power since a 1963 coup.
Hundreds again took to the streets for the seventh consecutive day of peaceful protests over worsening living conditions caused by steep gasoline prices and they demanded sweeping political changes.
"Step down Bashar, we want to live in dignity," they chanted in the main square where Druze top spiritual leaders have given their blessing for their protests without endorsing calls for an end to five decades of Assad family rule.
A major economic crisis has seen the local currency collapse, leading to soaring prices for food and basic supplies and which Assad's government blames on Western sanctions.
The rising dissent in loyalist areas that once stood with Assad now pose the biggest challenge to his hold on power after winning a more than decade-long civil war with crucial help from Russia and Iran.
Officials have heightened security in Mediterranean coastal areas, the ancestral homeland of Assad's minority Alawite sect that holds a tight control over the army and security forces, to preempt growing calls to strike and protest about living conditions, said Kenan Waqaf, a prominent journalist who was imprisoned for criticizing the authorities.
Across the province, scores of local branches of the Baath party whose officials hold top government posts were also closed by protesters with its cadres fleeing, residents said.
In a rare act of defiance in areas under Assad's rule, protesters tore down posters of Assad, where the party has promoted a personality cult around him and his late father.
Sweida, a city of over 100,000 people, has seen most public institutions shut and public transport on strike and businesses partially open, residents and civic activists said.
"This is civil disobedience that is unprecedented and draws wide societal support from a large section of the Druze community and its religious leaders," said Ryan Marouf, a civic activist and editor of the local Suwayda 24 news website.
The authorities have kept silent about the widening protests but instructed the security apparatus to stay out of sight and even vacated some checkpoints to avoid friction, officials privately said.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; editing by Grant McCool)