Thousands in Syria defy clampdown, turning out for protests

Government forces have opened fire at two of the demonstrations spreading across the country, having cut off internet access to most areas earlier in the day.

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BEIRUT // Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets throughout Syria on Friday to demand the fall of President Bashar Assad's regime, rejecting government concessions to free political prisoners and start a national dialogue, activists said.

Security forces fired on at least two of the demonstrations; the regime cut Internet service across most of the country and renewed its assault on towns seen as key to the revolt against the regime's 40-year rule.

As the Friday Muslim prayers ended, worshippers left the mosques and marched in cities, towns and villages. Syrian security forces dispersed some, mostly using batons, tear gas and water cannons and fired live ammunition in at least two locations in southern and northeastern towns.

Rights groups say more than 1,100 people have been killed since the revolt against Assad erupted in mid-March. There were no reports of casualties Friday but the week before, security forces killed at least 12 protesters.

Syrian troops also pounded the central town of Rastan with artillery and gunfire, killing at least two people. The Local Coordination Committees, which helps organize and document Syria's protests, says troops also opened fire on residents fleeing the town.

Friday's deaths bring the toll in Rastan and nearby Talbiseh to 74 killed since the attack started last Saturday.

The opposition has called for nationwide rallies Friday to commemorate the nearly 30 children killed by Assad's regime during the uprising.

In the southern city of Daraa, where the uprising began 10 weeks ago, scores of people rallied in the city's old quarter, chanting "No dialogue with the killers of children," an activist said.

The protesters were referring to a decree by Assad to set up a committee tasked with leading a national dialogue to end the crisis gripping the country.

The regime also released hundreds of political prisoners this week after Assad issued a pardon. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said leading Kurdish politician Mashaal Tammo and Muhannad al-Hassani, who heads the Syrian Organization for Human Rights, were released Thursday.

Human rights activist Mustafa Osso said Syrian security forces opened fire Friday at demonstrators in the southern village of Inkhil, but it was not clear if there were any casualties.

Osso also said that at least 5,000 people were demonstrating in the northeastern city of Qamishli, while about 10,000 protested in the village of Amouda. Osso added there were also protests in the Damascus suburbs of Daraya, Zabadani, Harasta and Douma.

Residents and activists also reported protests in the coastal city of Banias, the northeastern city of Deir el-Zour and the central Damascus neighborhood of Midan.

Other activists said there were protests in the Damascus suburb of Saqba where about 4,000 came out in the streets. The largest protests were reported in the northern towns of Maaret al-Numan where more than 50,000 people marched and Ariha where tens of thousands marched.

Meanwhile, a Syrian activist said authorities cut Internet service in several parts of the country, apparently to prevent activists from uploading footage of the protests and the government crackdown and from organizing new resistance. In Damascus, several people contacted over the phone said the Internet was down.

Video surfaced earlier this week on YouTube, Facebook and websites of Hamza al-Khatib, a 13-year-old boy whose tortured and mutilated body was returned to his family weeks after he disappeared during the protests.

The boy has since become a symbol to Syria's uprising and many people carried his posters during anti-regime rallies this week.

"They are worried about today's demonstrations after Hamza al-Khatib's video," said the activists, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals.

Details coming out of Syria are sketchy because the government has severely restricted the media and expelled foreign reporters, making it nearly impossible to independently verify accounts coming out of the country.