9:16am

Fri April 22, 2011
Middle East

Syrian Forces, Protesters Face Off On 'Great Friday'

Dozens of protesters reportedly died Friday after Syrian security forces fired live bullets and tear gas to break up anti-government rallies in several areas across the country.

A prominent Syrian human rights group said at least 49 people were killed — making Friday the deadliest day of the monthlong rebellion. Ammar Qurabi, head of Syria's National Organization for Human Rights, also said that at least 20 people were missing.

Eyewitnesses told The Associated Press that they saw at least five corpses with gunshot wounds at a hospital outside the capital, Damascus. In the southern province of Daraa, other witnesses said at least 10 people were killed when protesters marched in front of the mayor's office. They said an 11-year-old boy was among the dead.

The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Security forces have launched a deadly crackdown on the uprising against President Bashar Assad's authoritarian regime. More than 200 people have been killed since the protests began.

The witness accounts could not be independently confirmed because Syria has expelled journalists and restricted access to trouble spots.

Protesters flooded into the streets after prayers Friday in at least five major areas across the country despite warnings from the government and a heavy security presence in key towns. Demonstrators demolished official statues, symbols of Assad and his family. In the city of Homs, eyewitnesses called into Arab satellite programs to report on the violence by name — and said residents were treating the wounded because security police occupied hospitals.

For the first time, organized groups coordinated a list of demands, including an end to torture and violence, the release of political prisoners, and setting a date for a presidential election.

"The people want the downfall of the regime!" shouted protesters in Douma, a Damascus suburb where some 40,000 people took to the streets, eyewitnesses told the AP. It is the same rallying cry that was heard during the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.

Other massive protests were reported in the coastal city of Banias, the northeastern Kurdish region and the southern city of Daraa, where the uprising kicked off more than a month ago.

Activists had promised that Friday's protests would be the biggest rallies yet against the regime led by Assad, who inherited power from his father 11 years ago in one of the most authoritarian countries in the Middle East.

Anti-government groups were uploading videos of the protest on what is being called "Great Friday" to YouTube to spur others to join.

Friday rallies always have a theme and a name, said Rami Nakhle, a Syrian cyber activist based in Beirut, Lebanon. "We call it the Great Friday, in solidarity with the Syrian Christian," he said. It is Good Friday for Christians, but the Syrian government banned the traditional public celebration ahead of Easter.

Assad has been trying to defuse such protests by launching a bloody crackdown along with a series of concessions, most recently lifting emergency laws that gave authorities almost boundless powers of surveillance and arrest.

He also has fulfilled a decades-old demand by granting citizenship to thousands among Syria's long-ostracized Kurdish minority, fired local officials, released detainees and formed a new government.

But many protesters said the concessions have come too late — and that Assad does not deserve the credit.

"The state of emergency was brought down, not lifted," prominent Syrian activist Suhair Atassi, who was arrested several times in the past, wrote on her Twitter page. "It is a victory as a result of demonstrations, protests and the blood of martyrs who called for Syria's freedom."

Earlier Friday, witnesses said security forces in uniform and plainclothes set up checkpoints around the Damascus suburb of Douma, checking people's identity cards and preventing nonresidents from going in.

Syria stands in the middle of the most volatile conflicts in region because of its alliances with militant groups like Lebanon's Hezbollah and with Shiite powerhouse Iran. That has given Damascus a pivotal role in most of the flashpoint issues of the region, from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran's widening influence.

If the regime in Syria wobbles, it also throws into disarray the U.S. push for engagement with Damascus, part of Washington's plan to peel the country away from its allegiance to Hamas, Hezbollah and Tehran.

NPR's Deborah Amos reported from Beirut, Lebanon, for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.