- Associated Press - Friday, March 25, 2011

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Violence erupted around Syria on Friday as troops opened fire on protesters in several cities and pro- and anti-government crowds clashed on the tense streets of the capital in the most widespread unrest in years, witnesses said.

Soldiers shot at demonstrators in the restive southern city of Daraa after crowds set fire to a bronze statue of the country’s late president, Hafez Assad, a resident told The Associated Press. He said he heard heavy gunfire in the city center and later saw two bodies and many wounded people being brought to Daraa’s main hospital.

He said thousands of enraged protesters snatched some weapons from a far smaller number of troops and chased them out of the Roman-era old city, taking back control of the al-Omari mosque, which has been the epicenter of eight days of protests in Dara.

Two other residents confirmed to The Associated Press by telephone that protests had retaken the mosque and surrounding area.

The violence erupted after tens of thousands of Syrians took to the streets across the country after Friday prayers, shouting calls for greater freedoms in support of a more than week-long uprising in Daraa, according to witnesses, activists and footage posted online.

The demonstrations and ensuing crackdown were a major escalation of the showdown between President Bashar Assad’s regime and the crowds in Daraa who — inspired by pro-democracy unrest elsewhere in the Arab world — began protesting conditions in the drought-stricken south last week in demonstrations that have now spread around the country.

After dark, troops opened fire on protesters in Maadamiyeh, a suburb of the capital, Damascus, a witness told the AP. An activist in contact with people there said three had been killed.

Another activist told the AP that witnesses in the National Hospital in the coastal city of Latakia had reported seeing four people shot dead. Another was reported slain in the central city of Homs, he said.

None of the accounts could be immediately be independently confirmed in Syria, which maintains tight restrictions on the press.

In Damascus, people shouting in support of the Daraa protesters clashed with regime supporters outside the historic Umayyad mosque, hitting each other with leather belts.

An activist in Damascus in touch with eyewitnesses in the southern village of Sanamein said troops there opened fire on demonstrators trying to march to Daraa, a short distance away. He said there had been witness reports of fatalities, some claiming as many as 20 slain, but those could not be independently confirmed.

A video posted on Facebook by Syrian pro-democracy activists showed what it said were five dead young men lying on stretchers as men weeped around them. The voice of a woman can be heard saying “down with Bashar Assad.”

The White House urged Syria’s government to cease attacks on protesters and Turkey said its neighbor should quickly enact reforms to meet legitimate demands.

An unidentified Syrian official asserted that an armed group attacked the army headquarters in Sanamein and tried to storm it, leading to a clash with guards.

The official told the state-run news agency SANA said security forces would pursue what it described as armed people who are terrorizing citizens and trying to destabilize the country.

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