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The violence did not stop thousands of Syrians from taking part in demonstrations against President Bashar Assad on Friday, marching from mosques, gathering in town squares, chanting, singing and dancing against the regime.

“Even if I die, I will still be a rebel,” sang the leader of a demonstration in the northern city of Idlib, according to amateur video. “Oh Bashar, you will flee.”

Nationwide, at least 28 people were reported killed when security forces opened fire on protests, according to activists. That toll could not be independently verified.

Eight protesters were killed in the southern town of Busra al-Sham after Syrian forces fired a shell near the Khaled Bin Walid mosque, according to activists and amateur videos that appeared to show bloodied men sprawled lifeless on a street. The video could not be independently verified. The state-run news agency, SANA, blamed the attack on terrorists who planted bombs near the mosque.

Syrian troops have been sweeping through villages and towns in northern, central, southern and seaside provinces this week to reclaim territory.

The military on Wednesday overran the town of Haffa in the coastal Latakia province, pushing out hundreds of rebels after intense battles that lasted eight days.

U.N. observers entered the nearly deserted town Thursday and found smoldering buildings, looted shops, smashed cars and a strong stench of death, according to U.N. spokeswoman Sausan Ghosheh.

Selma Tareq, 42, a Haffa resident who fled to Turkey last week, said many families remain trapped in the mountains.

She said Syrian regime forces set fire to forests in an apparent attempt to stop people from fleeing and prevent rebels from reinforcing.

“We were afraid to drink water from the wells fearing they could be poisoned so we made cats and other animals drink first,” said Tareq, who is now in a refugee camp in Yayladagi, Turkey’s southernmost border with Syria, with her sons, Omar, 5, and Osman, 8.

“We stored dry bread and softened it in water to survive,” she said.

The siege of Haffa, a Sunni-populated village, had become a focus of international concern because of fears the uprising against the Assad regime is evolving into a sectarian civil war pitting the president’s minority Alawite sect against the majority Sunnis and other groups. Recent mass killings in other Sunni areas have fueled those concerns.

U.N. observers have reported a steep rise in violence in Syria in recent weeks — and not just on the part of the government.

“The attacks by the armed opposition on official buildings and government checkpoints are becoming more effective, and the government is taking great losses,” Mood said Friday.

Activists say some 14,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011.

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