- Associated Press - Friday, August 12, 2011

BEIRUT — Syrian soldiers opened fire Friday on tens of thousands of protesters who flooded the streets shouting for the ouster — and even the execution — of President Bashar Assad as his embattled regime tries to crush a 5-month-old uprising despite broad international condemnation.

The calls for Assad’s death were a dramatic escalation of the opposition movement’s rage and frustration following a deadly week of military assaults on rebellious cities.

At least 11 protesters were killed after Friday prayer demonstrations: Five outside the capital, Damascus, one in the central city of Homs and another in Hama, two in the major northern city Aleppo and one in Deir el-Zour in the east, and one in the northwestern province of Idlib, according to activists. Military raids earlier in the day killed at least two people.

State-run news agency SANA said two policemen were killed in the Damascus suburb of Douma when they came under fire.

Friday has become the main day for demonstrations in Syria, despite the near-certainty of a government crackdown with bullets and tear gas. The latest rallies were largest in Homs and the outskirts of Hama in central Syria, Deir el-Zour in the east, Idlib province near the Turkish border and Latakia in the north.

This image made from amateur video released by Ugarit News and accessed via the Associated Press Television News on Aug. 11, 2011, shows a dead body on a street in Binnish, Syria. (Associated Press/Ugarit News, via APTN)
This image made from amateur video released by Ugarit News and accessed ... more >

The protests in Deir el-Zour and outside Hama were significant because government forces took control of both areas during the past week during deadly military assaults. The fact that protesters still turned out was a strong sign of defiance and the latest signal that Assad’s forces cannot terrify them into staying home.

Syrian troops opened fire on thousands in Deir el-Zour, according to two main activist groups.

Protesters struggled to turn out in great numbers inside Hama, however, due to the widespread deployment of soldiers and snipers stationed on rooftops, witnesses said. Syrian troops surrounded mosques and set up checkpoints to head off any protests.

“There are security checkpoints every 200 meters (655 feet), they have lists and they’re searching people … the mosques are surrounded by soldiers,” a Hama-based activist told The Associated Press by telephone, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

He said dozens of soldiers were stationed in the Assi square in Hama, which had been the main converging point for hundreds of thousands of protesters in recent weeks.

In Homs and Idlib, where tens of thousands turned out, protesters shouted: “The people want the execution of the president!” The chant was the latest sign of how much the protest movement has grown since it erupted in March, seeking minor reforms and democratic change.

In the town of Qusair, near the border with Lebanon, authorities detained poet Abdul-Rahman Ammar, 68, in order to force his activist son to hand himself over, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the London-based Observatory for Human Rights in Syria.

Syria has banned most foreign media and restricted local coverage, making it impossible to get independent confirmation of the events on the ground. The government has justified its crackdown by saying it was dealing with terrorist gangs and criminals who were fomenting unrest.

The military offensive reflects Assad’s determination to crush the uprising against his rule despite mounting international condemnation, including U.S. and European sanctions.

In Washington, presidential spokesman Jay Carney stopped just short of calling for Assad’s ouster, saying that Syria “would be a much better place without him.”

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