BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian security forces opened fire on demonstrations Friday in the capital and the coastal city of Latakia — the heartland of the ruling elite — wounding at least five people as thousands took to the streets in several places across the country, witnesses said.
Other demonstrations were reported in the capital, Damascus, along with the coastal city of Banias, the northern city of Raqqa and the northeastern city of Qamishli.
President Bashar Assad’s regime has stepped up its deadly crackdown on protesters in recent days by unleashing the army along with snipers and tanks. On Friday, protesters came out in their thousands, defying the crackdown and using it as a rallying cry.
Assad has tried to crush the revolt — the gravest challenge to his family’s 40-year ruling dynasty — and in the process has drawn international criticism and threats of sanctions from European countries and the United States.
A witness in Latakia said about 1,000 people turned out for an anti-government rally when plainclothes security agents with automatic rifles opened fire. He said he saw at least five people wounded. Like many witnesses contacted by The Associated Press, he asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisal.
Syrian state-run TV said one of its cameramen was injured in Latakia during an attack by an armed gang. The government has blamed the unrest on armed gangs — not true reform-seekers.
A witness in Daraa — the southern city at the center of the revolt — said residents were staying home Friday. They did not even venture out to mosques for Friday prayers because of snipers.
“We are in our houses but our hearts are in the mosques,” the witness said.
In Damascus’ central Midan neighborhood, witnesses said about 500 people marched chanting “God, Syria and freedom only!” in a heavy rain, but security forces opened fire with bullets and tear gas, scattering them. It was not clear if there were injuries.
The government had warned against holding any demonstrations Friday and placed large banners around the capital that read: “We urge the brother citizens to avoid going out of your homes on Friday for your own safety.” Syrian state television said the Interior Ministry has not approved any “march, demonstration or sit-in” and that such rallies seek only to harm Syria’s security and stability.
Many of the protests were held in solidarity with more than 50 people killed in the last week alone in Daraa. The city has been under military siege since Monday, when thousands of soldiers stormed in backed by tanks and snipers.
A devastating picture was emerging from the city — which is largely sealed off, without electricity and telephones — as residents flee to neighboring countries.
At the Jordanian side of the Syrian border, several Daraa residents who had just crossed over said there is blood on the streets of the city.
“Gunfire is heard across the city all the time,” one man said, asking that his name not be used for fear of retribution. “People are getting killed in the streets by snipers if they leave their homes.”
An AP reporter at the border heard gunfire and saw smoke rising from different areas just across the frontier. Residents said the gunfire has been constant for three weeks.
Since the uprising in Syria began in mid-March, inspired by revolts across the Arab world, more than 450 people have been killed nationwide, activists say.
The Muslim Brotherhood urged Syrians to demonstrate Friday against Assad in the first time the outlawed group has openly encouraged the protests in Syria. The Brotherhood was crushed by Assad’s father, Hafez, after staging an uprising against his regime in 1982.
“You were born free, so don’t let a tyrant enslave you,” said the statement, issued by the Brotherhood’s exiled leadership.
Assad has said the protests — the gravest challenge to his family’s 40-year ruling dynasty — are a foreign conspiracy carried out by extremist forces and armed thugs.
But he has acknowledged the need for reforms, offering overtures of change in recent weeks while brutally cracking down on demonstrations.
Last week, Syria’s Cabinet abolished the state of emergency, in place for decades, and approved a new law allowing the right to stage peaceful protests with the permission of the Interior Ministry.
But the protesters, enraged by the mounting death toll, no longer appear satisfied with the changes and are increasingly seeking the regime’s downfall.
“The people want the downfall of the regime,” said an activist in the coastal city of Banias — echoing the cries heard during the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions.
Syria has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted access to trouble spots since the uprising began, making it almost impossible to verify the dramatic events shaking one of the most authoritarian, anti-Western regimes in the Arab world.
Witnesses and human rights groups said Syrian army units clashed with each other over following Assad’s orders to crack down on protesters in Daraa, where the uprising started.
While the troops’ infighting in Daraa does not indicate any decisive splits in the military, it is significant because Assad’s army has always been the regime’s fiercest defender.
It is the latest sign that cracks — however small — are developing in Assad’s base of support that would have been unimaginable just weeks ago. Also, about 200 mostly low-level members of Syria’s ruling Baath Party have resigned over Assad’s brutal crackdown.
Meanwhile, diplomats say the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency is setting the stage for potential U.N. Security Council action on Syria as it prepares a report assessing that a Syrian target bombed by Israeli warplanes in 2007 was likely a secretly built nuclear reactor meant to produce plutonium.
Such a conclusion would back intelligence produced by Israel and the United States. Syria says the nearly finished building had no nuclear uses. It has repeatedly turned down requests by the International Atomic Energy Agency to revisit the site after allowing an initial 2008 inspection that found evidence of possible nuclear activities.
Three diplomats and a senior U.N. official said such an assessment — drawn up by IAEA chief Yukiya Amano — would be the basis of a Western-sponsored resolution at a meeting of the 35-nation IAEA board that condemns Syria’s refusal to cooperate with the agency and kicks the issue to the U.N. Security Council. All spoke on condition of anonymity because the information they discussed was confidential.
Separately, the United States and the European Union urged the U.N. Human Rights Council to investigate possible abuses in Syria and insist that Assad allow in foreign journalists and ease Internet restrictions. Diplomats from Nigeria and China, however, warned that any council action could be interpreted as meddling.
The U.S. and Western diplomats also plan to rally opposition to Syria’s unopposed candidacy to join the 47-nation council.
AP writers Jamal Halaby at the Jordanian-Syrian border, Diaa Hadid in Cairo, Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut, John Heilprin in Geneva and George Jahn in Vienna contributed to this report.
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