BEIRUT: Syrian security forces opened fire on protests around the
country Friday in the latest sign the conflict could be moving toward a long
and bloody stalemate as President Bashar Assad shrugged off tighter sanctions and
U.S. calls to step aside.
Human rights activists said at least 27 people were killed,
including a 10-year-old boy.
The clashes indicate neither side appears able to tip the scales
in the two-month uprising. Assad's forces have waged a relentless crackdown on
the opposition, but protesters continue to face down security forces with
marches seeking to break the Syrian leader's authoritarian rule.
Human rights groups say more than 850 people have been killed
in the clashes and clampdowns.
Witnesses reported protests Friday in the central cities of
Homs and Hama; outside the capital of Damascus, and the Mediterranean ports of
Banias and Latakia. Like most witnesses contacted by The Associated Press, the residents
asked that their names not be used in fear of reprisals from the government.
Last week, mass arrests and heavy security kept crowds below
previous levels seen during the uprising, suggesting Assad's sweeping campaign
of intimidation was working. But the marches Friday suggested that opposition
forces could be trying to regroup.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Friday's protests were
more widespread and larger than the previous week.
"There were large numbers from the south to the north
to the suburbs, and there were protests in besieged cities and towns," he
said. "Despite the heavy security and military presence in almost all
these places, people staged protests calling for freedom. This is very
Syrian human rights activist Mustafa Osso said witnesses also
were reporting that the army deployed tanks around the northern town of Maaret
al-Numan, which has seen intense protests. The Local Coordination Committees in
Syria, which help organize the protests, said dozens of people were wounded in
the town and hospitals were calling for blood donations.
Friday's death toll was reported by the Syrian Observatory for
Human Rights. The group said 10 were killed in Homs, 11 in Maaret al-Numan, one
in Latakia, two in the northeastern town of Deir el-Zour, one each in the
southern villages of Sanamein and Harra and one in the Damascus suburb of Daraya.
A 10-year-old boy was among the dead in Homs, Osso said.
Syria is coming under increasing pressure to end the crackdown,
but the government has brushed off the criticism and new U.S. sanctions that
have targeted Assad and senior aides.
In an address Thursday on the Arab world uprising, U.S. President
Barack Obama said that Assad should lead his country to democracy or "get
out of the way." Syria's official news agency said Obama's speech amounted
to "incitement." Syria has blamed the unrest on armed thugs and foreign agitators.
Also Friday, leading Sunni Muslim cleric Sheik Karim Rajeh,
the imam of Damascus's Al-Hassan mosque, said he will no longer lead Friday
sermons because security forces have been preventing people from going to
prayers. The weekly demonstrations mostly kick off after prayers.
Syria has banned foreign journalists and prevented local reporters
from covering trouble spots, making it nearly impossible to independently
verify witness accounts.