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Syrian security forces open fire at protesters

    In this citizen journalism image made on a mobile phone and acquired by the AP, Syrian anti-government protesters carry a banner in Arabic that reads:" Daraa is our torch, Douma is our model, Jabla is our support, Latakia is our pride, Homs is our victory, in Qamishli our brothers and what about Qardaha ??!," knowing that Qardaha is the home village of Syrian President Bashar Assad, as they gather in the coastal city of Banias, Syria, Friday, April 22, 2011. Syrian security forces fired live bullets and tear gas Friday at tens of thousands of people shouting for freedom and democracy, wounding about 10 people on a day that could be a major test of whether President Bashar Assad's promises of sweeping reform will quell the monthlong uprising. (AP Photo)

BEIRUT >> Thousands of Syrians chanting "We aren’t afraid!" took to the streets Friday, calling for President Bashar Assad’s downfall and pledging support for the besieged southern city of Daraa, where army tanks and snipers are trying to crush the six-week uprising, witnesses said.

Syrian security forces opened fire on demonstrations in the capital of Damascus and the coastal city of Latakia — the heartland of the ruling elite — wounding at least five people. State-run television said a military post in Daraa was stormed by armed men who killed four soldiers and captured two.

Other demonstrations were reported in 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.

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.

A witness in Daraa, the city at the center of the revolt, said residents were staying home because the city has been under siege by the military since Monday, when thousands of soldiers stormed in backed by tanks and snipers. 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"We are in our houses but our hearts are in the mosques," the witness said, asking that his name not be published for fear of reprisals.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

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 from European countries and the United States.

The government says the protests are a foreign conspiracy carried out by extremist forces and armed thugs, not true reform-seekers.

Syrian TV said "armed terrorists" attacked a military post in the southern city of Daraa, killing four soldiers and capturing two. The station also said one of its cameramen was injured in Latakia in an attack by an armed gang.

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.

In Damascus’ central Midan neighborhood, witnesses said about 500 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. It was not clear if there were injuries.

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.

Many of the protests were held in solidarity with more than 50 people killed in the last week in Daraa. A devastating picture was emerging from the city — which is largely sealed off, without electricity, water and telephones — as residents flee to neighboring countries.

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."

An AP 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.

The Muslim Brotherhood urged Syrians to demonstrate 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.

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.

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 U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency is setting the stage for potential U.N. 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 U.N. 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 U.N. Security Council. All spoke on condition of anonymity because the information they discussed was confidential.

Separately, the United States and the European Union urged the U.N. Human Rights Council to investigate possible abuses in Syria and insist that Assad allow in foreign journalists and ease Internet restrictions. Diplomats from Nigeria and China, however, warned that any council action could be interpreted as meddling.

The U.S. and Western diplomats also plan to rally opposition to Syria’s unopposed candidacy to join the 47-nation council.


Associated Press writers Jamal Halaby at the Jordanian-Syrian border, Diaa Hadid in Cairo, Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut, John Heilprin in Geneva and George Jahn in Vienna contributed to this report.


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