Continued from page 1

Security forces fired tear gas in the capital’s Zahra neighborhood, forcing scores of people to disperse. In nearby Mazzeh, protesters ran away when security forces arrived. And in Muhajereen, security forces used batons to scatter dozens of people, activists said.

In Damascus’ Qaboun neighborhood, a witness said worshippers who came out of the Abu Bakr al-Siddiq mosque clashed with about 50 pro-Assad demonstrators who were being covered by a Syrian TV station. He said plainclothes gunmen in a jeep with covered license plates then opened fire on the anti-government protesters, killing and wounding several of them. Activists said two were killed and several others were wounded.

“There are three new neighborhoods in Damascus that witnessed protests for the first time,” said leading human rights activist Mazen Darwish.

“Despite everything, protests are taking place in new neighborhoods,” he said.

Louay Hussein, a Syrian writer and political activist, said it was “an important political milestone when protests start happening in Damascus neighborhoods as opposed to the suburbs.”

He said authorities appeared to be stepping away from the policy of “systematic shooting” of recent weeks, which he added had failed to yield results and triggered international condemnation.

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.

Assad’s regime has blamed the unrest on terrorist, extremist groups and foreign agitators. Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud told reporters Friday that a “comprehensive national dialogue in all provinces” will start within days, but he gave no further details.

Assad has come under scathing criticism for the crackdown, with the United States and Europe imposing sanctions. On Friday, Britain summoned Syria’s ambassador Friday to warn that new sanctions will target the regime’s hierarchy if Assad does not halt the violent crackdown on protesters.

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.

The government’s bloody crackdown has increased in intensity in recent days and weeks. The army shelled residential areas in central and southern Syria on Wednesday, killing 19 people, a human rights group said.

The government also laid siege to several towns, including Daraa, sparking fears of a humanitarian crisis. A U.N. international aid assessment team has not been allowed to enter Daraa to check on the situation.

Mahmoud, the information minister, brushed aside those concerns Friday.

“I can say that the Syrian government and the Syrian Red Crescent Society were following on the case in Daraa, and they found that there is no lack of food and medicine. We have informed the United Nations that there is no need for aid in Daraa.”

Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut and David Stringer in London contributed to this report.