Syrian security forces opened fire on thousands of protesters Friday, killing at least six people as soldiers tried to head off demonstrations by occupying mosques and blocking public squares, human rights activists said.
A leading activist told The Associated Press that three people were killed in Homs, two in Damascus and one in a village outside Daraa, the southern city where the nationwide uprising began in March. He asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisals by the government.
In Damascus, the capital, three rallies were held — the largest number of protests held at one time in the city during the two-month revolt against President Bashar Assad.
Thousands in Syria have persevered with the demonstrations, turning up in huge numbers on Fridays — the Islamic day of prayer — only to be met with bullets, tear gas and batons by security forces.
One activist in Homs, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said security forces dressed in black and shadowy pro-regime gunmen known as "shabiha" were doing the shooting. He said the regime forces first fired in the air, then shot directly into the crowd as protesters continued their way.
The clashes came after an adviser to the Syrian government said Assad had ordered security forces not to shoot at protesters.
Syrian journalist Talib Ibrahim, who regularly speaks for the regime, told Al Jazeera the military "has been successful at breaking up the armed gangs behind these protests, so now there is no reason to shoot."
Human rights groups say that between 700 and 850 people have been killed since the start of the revolt against Assad's repressive regime.
Homs On Edge
Martin Fletcher, associate editor for The Times of London, told All Things Considered that the city of Homs was "extremely tense."
"It was flooded with security personnel — some in uniform, some in plainclothes, all armed," he said. "In the more troublesome ... districts, there were ... groups of tanks at every junction. On the very northern edge, I counted at least 100 tanks standing by the highway, parked, waiting for an eventuality."
Fletcher, who had been in Syria under the guise of a tourist, was stopped at a checkpoint and briefly detained after security personnel looked at his passport.
"They saw that I had been in both Egypt and Libya earlier in the year, which didn't really fit with my claim to be a tourist," he said.
Fletcher said he was taken to a windowless basement in an apartment building and held for six hours. Beyond a heavy steel door, he got a glimpse of dozens of young men, sitting huddled on the floor.
"Quite clearly they were rounding up young men of fighting age from the streets of the city in an effort to crush the protests," he said.
Assad has come under scathing criticism for the crackdown, with the United States and Europe imposing sanctions.
On Friday, Britain summoned Syria's ambassador to warn that new sanctions will target the regime's hierarchy if Assad does not halt the country's violent crackdown on protesters.
Syrian Ambassador Sami Khiyami was called in for talks with political director Geoffrey Adams — the second time in recent weeks he had been ordered to explain his government's actions.
Fletcher said he was surprised at how much support Assad still has in Syria, however.
"People hate the people around him for their corruption, for their brutality and so on," he said. "Some Syrians still buy into the idea that he is a reformer who may be constrained by his coterie. Some like the way he stands up to the United States and Israel. A lot of people have a great fear that if President Assad goes, Syria will descend into the sort of sectarian conflicts they have seen on both sides — in Iraq to their east, in Lebanon to their west."
Fletcher said he didn't sense the military was close to losing control and that Assad will be able to crush the protests.
"[But] I think it may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory. I think consequently the economic cost of this is enormous. Syria is now fairly firmly back on the list of pariah nations," he said. "I think in six months to a year's time, the Syrian economy is going to be in real trouble. There'll be soaring inflation, even higher unemployment — especially among young people — than there is at the moment. At that point, it's quite possible the middle classes who have largely sat out this revolution [will stand up, and] Assad could be facing a new, reinvigorated much broader protest movement than he is at the moment."
Protesters Met By Soldiers
In several volatile areas of Syria, residents said soldiers occupied mosques and blocked off major public areas Friday to prevent people from leaving their homes.
"The army has transformed major mosques in the city into military barracks where soldiers sleep, eat and drink," said a resident in the coastal town of Banias. "They've put up barriers and sandbags around the mosques."
Up to 1,200 security forces have deployed in the public square in the center of town, and soldiers and armed thugs have broken into shops, offices and homes to intimidate people.
In Damascus, security forces fired tear gas in the Zahra neighborhood, forcing scores of people to disperse. In nearby Mazzeh, protesters ran away when security forces arrived. In Muhajereen, security forces used batons to scatter dozens of people, activists said.
There is a media blackout in Syria, making it impossible to confirm witness accounts independently. Witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for their personal safety.
Other protests were around the northeastern city of Qamishli, where about 5,000 people marched in the streets chanting "Freedom!" and "Freedom to political prisoners!" said rights activist Mustafa Osso.
Thousands also were demonstrating in the nearby towns of Amouda and Derbasiyeh, he said.
A 'Sign Of Remarkable Weakness'
The government's crackdown has increased in intensity in recent days. On Wednesday, the army shelled residential areas in central and southern Syria, killing 19 people, a human rights group said.
On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton slammed the Syrian government's assault on demonstrators and said the violence indicates that Assad is weak, though she stopped short of saying he must quit.
"Treating one's own people in this way is in fact a sign of remarkable weakness," Clinton said during a trip to Greenland.
The revolt was touched off in mid-March by the arrest of teenagers who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall. Since then, the protests have spread nationwide and the death toll already has exceeded those seen during the uprisings in Yemen and Tunisia.
NPR's Kelly McEvers contributed to this report from Beirut, Lebanon. It also contains material from The Associated Press. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.