Beirut: Security forces opened fire on Friday on demonstrators trying to break an Army blockade on the southern city of Daraa, while thousands of others across Syria defied a protest ban and denounced President Bashar Assad`s harsh crackdown on a six-week uprising. At least 42 people were killed, including 15 in the march on Daraa, according to witnesses and a human rights group.
The protesters in cities across Syria — including the capital of Damascus — called for Assad`s ouster, with some chanting "We are not afraid!"
Human rights activist Mustafa Osso said 42 people were killed, but the death toll could rise. His human rights group, based in Syria, compiles casualty tolls from the crackdown.
A witness in Daraa — the heart of the uprising — said residents stayed indoors because the city has been under siege by the military since Monday, when thousands of soldiers backed by tanks and snipers stormed in. People were too afraid even to venture out to mosques for prayers, the witness said.
"We are in our houses but our hearts are in the mosques," the witness said, speaking by satellite telephone and asking that his name not be published for fear of reprisals.
Large demonstrations broke out in Damascus, the central city of Homs, the coastal cities of Banias and Latakia, the northern cities of Raqqa and Hama, and the northeastern town of Qamishli.
In Damascus` central Midan neighbourhood, witnesses said about 2,000 people marched and chanted, "God, Syria and freedom only!" in a heavy rain, but security forces opened fire with bullets and tear gas, scattering them.
"Oh great Syrian Army! Lift the blockade on Daraa!" protesters chanted in the Damascus suburb of Barzeh, according to video footage posted by activists on YouTube.
The government had warned against holding any demonstrations Friday and placed large banners around the capital that read: "We urge the brother citizens to avoid going out of your homes on Friday for your own safety." Syrian TV said the Interior Ministry has not approved any "march, demonstration or sit-in" and that such rallies seek only to harm Syria`s security and stability.
Since the uprising in Syria began in mid-March, inspired by revolts across the Arab world, more than 450 people have been killed nationwide, activists say.
Assad`s attempts to crush the revolt — the gravest challenge to his family`s 40-year ruling dynasty — have drawn international criticism and threats of sanctions.
Two US officials said Washington would be freezing the assets of three top Syrians. The officials would not name the individuals to be penalised, pending the formal release of President Barack Obama`s executive order. However, they said Assad is not among them but could be named at a later date.
The penalties will freeze any assets that the officials, Syria`s General Intelligence Directorate and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps may have in US jurisdictions and also bar Americans from doing business with them. Iran and its Revolutionary Guard Corps are also under similar US sanctions. The officials said the new designation for the Revolutionary Guard would add another layer of penalties and make clear that Washington believes it is providing material support to help Syrian authorities with the crackdown.
Assad`s government says the protests are a foreign conspiracy carried out by extremist forces and armed thugs, not true reform-seekers.
Syrian TV said military and police forces came under attack Friday by "armed terrorists" in Daraa and the central city of Homs, killing four soldiers and three police officers. Two soldiers were captured, the report said. The station also said one of its cameramen was injured in Latakia in an attack by an armed gang.
Outside Homs, thousands chanted "We don`t love you!" and "Bye, bye Bashar! We will see you in The Hague!" as the sound of gunfire crackled in the distance.
A devastating picture was emerging of Daraa — which has been without electricity, water and telephones since Monday — as residents flee to neighbouring countries. Daraa is where the uprising kicked off, sparked by the arrest of teenagers who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall.
Residents inside the city begged for international intervention on Friday.
"Nobody can move in (Daraa), they have snipers on the high roofs," a resident said using a satellite phone. "They are firing at everything."
At the Jordanian side of the Syrian border, several Daraa residents who had just crossed over said there is blood on the streets of the city.
"Gunfire is heard across the city all the time," one man said, asking that his name not be used for fear of retribution. "People are getting killed in the streets by snipers if they leave their homes."
A reporter at the border heard gunfire and saw smoke rising from different areas just across the frontier. Residents said the gunfire has been constant for three weeks.
Assad`s regime has stepped up its deadly crackdown on protesters in recent days by unleashing the Army along with snipers and tanks. On Friday, protesters came out in their thousands, defying the crackdown and using it as a rallying cry.
Syria has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted access to trouble spots since the uprising began, making it almost impossible to verify the dramatic events shaking one of the most authoritarian, anti-Western regimes in the Arab world.
A witness in Latakia said about 1,000 people turned out for an anti-government rally when plainclothes security agents with automatic rifles opened fire. He said he saw at least five people wounded. Like many witnesses contacted by The Associated Press, he asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisal.
The Muslim Brotherhood urged Syrians to demonstrate on Friday against Assad in the first time the outlawed group has openly encouraged the protests in Syria. The Brotherhood was crushed by Assad`s father, Hafez, after staging an uprising against his regime in 1982.
"You were born free, so don`t let a tyrant enslave you," said the statement, issued by the Brotherhood`s exiled leadership.
But he has acknowledged the need for reforms, offering overtures of change in recent weeks while brutally cracking down on demonstrations.
Last week, Syria`s Cabinet abolished the state of emergency, in place for decades, and approved a new law allowing the right to stage peaceful protests with the permission of the Interior Ministry.
But the protesters, enraged by the mounting death toll, no longer appear satisfied with the changes and are increasingly seeking the regime`s downfall.
"The people want the downfall of the regime," said an activist in the coastal city of Banias — echoing the cries heard during the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions.
Witnesses and human rights groups said Syrian army units clashed with each other over following Assad`s orders to crack down on protesters in Daraa, where the uprising started.
While the troops` infighting in Daraa does not indicate any decisive splits in the military, it is significant because Assad`s army has always been the regime`s fiercest defender.
It is the latest sign that cracks — however small — are developing in Assad`s base of support that would have been unimaginable just weeks ago. Also, about 200 mostly low-level members of Syria`s ruling Baath Party have resigned over Assad`s brutal crackdown.
Meanwhile, diplomats say the UN`s nuclear watchdog agency is setting the stage for potential UN Security Council action on Syria as it prepares a report assessing that a Syrian target bombed by Israeli warplanes in 2007 was likely a secretly built nuclear reactor meant to produce plutonium.
Such a conclusion would back intelligence produced by Israel and the United States. Syria says the nearly finished building had no nuclear uses. It has repeatedly turned down requests by the International Atomic Energy Agency to revisit the site after allowing an initial 2008 inspection that found evidence of possible nuclear activities.
Three diplomats and a senior UN official said such an assessment — drawn up by IAEA chief Yukiya Amano — would be the basis of a Western-sponsored resolution at a meeting of the 35-nation IAEA board that condemns Syria`s refusal to cooperate with the agency and kicks the issue to the UN Security Council. All spoke on condition of anonymity because the information they discussed was confidential.
Separately, the UN Human Rights Council approved an investigation of Syria`s crackdown and demanded that the nation immediately release political prisoners and lift restrictions on journalists and the Internet. The action came on a 26-9 vote, with 7 abstentions. Opposition among many Arab and African nations forced the U.S.-drafted resolution to be watered down to omit Syria`s unopposed candidacy for the council.