Protesters fill streets of Syria; security forces unleash deadly violence

Violent mass demonstrations across Syria's cities, towns and villages were met with indiscriminate gunfire by security forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, killing dozens of people and hardening the divide between a regime determined to keep power and increasingly fearless protesters demanding the overthrow of the government.

Tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets of Syrian cities after weekly prayers on a day dubbed "Great Friday" by protest leaders.

Assad's armed forces responded by firing volleys of bullets and tear gas into the crowds, despite government decrees implemented just a day earlier to allow peaceful protests.

"Can you hear it? Listen," said a witness reached by telephone in the city of Duma, where a barrage of gunfire and cries of pain and terror could be heard. "This is a war. The regime has declared a war on the Syrian people."

Chants in the background grew louder even as gunfire continued.

"The people want the overthrow of the regime," the protesters cried out, using the provocative slogan borrowed from revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, which inspired a wave of unrest against dictatorial regimes throughout the Arab world.

Syrian activists said at least 88 people were killed Friday, according to Damascus human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh, who collected the names of dead protesters.

The unrest threatens the stability of a key nation that borders Israel, is locked in a strategic alliance with Iran and serves as a conduit for weapons and political support to Hezbollah in Lebanon and militant groups in the Palestinian territories. U.S. and European officials, despite their differences with Assad and his late father, Hafez, have long considered the clan preferable to Islamists believed to have a powerful political presence in Syria.

All signs pointed to the crisis growing graver, bloodier and deeper. The street protests, which used to break out only on Fridays, are now a daily occurrence in this tightly policed nation of 23 million.

President Obama said Friday in a statement carried by the Associated Press that the crackdown on protesters "must come to an end now" and accused Damascus of seeking Iranian help to repress its people. Although it condemned the violence, Obama's toughly worded statement did not refer to any potential U.S. consequences if Assad refused to heed his demands.

Hundreds of people have been killed by Syrian security forces answering to Assad, who is commander in chief as well as president, in five weeks of unrest.

Protesters, knowing they risk being slain, nevertheless have been flooding the streets, challenging the regime. Their simple calls for reform have spiraled into a roar demanding regime change.

At the same time, security forces have grown more brutal and the alternative reality portrayed on state media more divergent from the violence on the streets.

State media Friday downplayed the bloodiest day of civil unrest in the country's recent history as limited. Security forces, the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported, "used water hoses and tear gas to settle scuffles that erupted between demonstrators and citizens and to protect private properties."

The chasm of mistrust between the government and protesters has become so wide that activists now sit vigil outside hospital morgues to ensure the authorities don't snatch corpses of those killed to prevent politically charged funeral marches Saturday.

Throughout the country Friday, protesters chafing against the 48-year rule of the Assad clan and its Baath Party loyalists paid a dear price for marching on a Good Friday that probably will long resonate through Syrian history.

Amateur video posted on the Internet showed panicked protesters fleeing for cover as Assad's plainclothes and uniformed security officials, sometimes positioned on rooftops, fired on unarmed demonstrators.

Video showed a dead man allegedly shot by security forces lying near the city center of Damascus. Another gruesome video, reportedly taken from the southern city of Izra, showed a man carrying a boy with blood pouring from his head after he had been shot by security officials. "Oh God! Oh God!" a man yelled in despair.

Zaitouneh said at least 41 people were gunned down by plainclothes and uniformed security officials in Damascus and its suburbs, including Duma, Muadimiya, Kaboun, Barza, Hajar Aswad, Zamalka and Harasta.

Witnesses described cars and ambulances transporting dead and injured from scenes of violence.

"They were demonstrating when, all of a sudden, men in military uniforms began firing live ammunition and tear gas without warning," said a witness in a Damascus suburb.

Twenty people were killed in the city of Izra, said a medical official reached by telephone, and at least 21 were killed in Homs and another nearby city, Zaitouneh said. One person was also reportedly killed in Dara.

"People are asking for civil rights and freedom and they are peaceful," one political activist said. "No arms could be seen in the hands of these people. The use of live fire is a sign that the regime has lost control on the ground."

The nationwide demonstrations were a sharp rebuke of efforts by Assad to assuage his opponents by lifting an emergency law, abolishing a secretive security court and granting citizens the right to peaceful protests.

Protesters have dramatically upped their demands, which just a few weeks ago consisted of removing the 5-decade-old emergency law. Now they explicitly want Assad's ouster.

The public statements, slogans and gestures of regime opponents now reflect a sharp change in sentiment against Assad and his clan, members of the minority Alawite community that dominates the mostly Sunni Muslim country's economy, political scene and security forces.

A committee of activists that claimed to represent groups across the country issued a precedent-breaking statement demanding the Syrian state implement broad democratic reforms; stop torturing, killing and arresting peaceful demonstrators; issue a formal apology; and declare three days of mourning. They called for a public independent commission to investigate the violence.

"We demand the immediate release of all political prisoners, as well as the release of all detainees held by our national security agencies, including those sentenced by special interim courts after having been arrested by our security forces," the statement said.

Much of Friday's violence unfolded in the suburbs and satellite cities of Damascus after security officials flooded the center of the capital in a mostly successful effort to keep massive protests from erupting in the seat of Assad's power.

In Maidan, near the center of Damascus, protesters could be seen in one online video striking portraits of Assad with their fists.

"We want the murderers of our martyrs to be tried," protesters in Dara were heard to say on video.

Another video showed protesters in Qetaireh, in the country's southwest, tearing down a statue of one of the Assads and ripping down posters with their portraits.

"We're not from the Muslim Brotherhood and we're not Salafists," they chanted in Homs, Syria's third-largest city, in an attempt to counter the regime propaganda depicting the protesters as extremists connected to the Salafi or Wahhabi branch of Islam that inspires Osama bin Laden. "We want freedom!"

Protests also broke out in the Kurdish city of Qamishli, but there were no reports of violence, with Assad likely calculating that he cannot afford to further inflame passions among the country's most volatile and restless ethnic minority, at least for now.

daragahi@latimes.com

Special correspondents Roula Hajjar and Alexandra Sandels in Beirut and a special correspondent in Damascus contributed to this report.

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