Syrians march in the central city of Homs during one of many anti-government… (Associated Press )
Reporting from Beirut — Violent mass demonstrations across Syria's cities, towns and villages were met with indiscriminate gunfire by security forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, killing dozens of people and hardening the divide between a regime determined to keep power and increasingly fearless protesters demanding the overthrow of the government.
Tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets of Syrian cities after weekly prayers on a day dubbed "Great Friday" by protest leaders.
Assad's armed forces responded by firing volleys of bullets and tear gas into the crowds, despite government decrees implemented just a day earlier to allow peaceful protests.
"Can you hear it? Listen," said a witness reached by telephone in the city of Duma, where a barrage of gunfire and cries of pain and terror could be heard. "This is a war. The regime has declared a war on the Syrian people."
Chants in the background grew louder even as gunfire continued.
"The people want the overthrow of the regime," the protesters cried out, using the provocative slogan borrowed from revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, which inspired a wave of unrest against dictatorial regimes throughout the Arab world.
Syrian activists said at least 88 people were killed Friday, according to Damascus human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh, who collected the names of dead protesters.
The unrest threatens the stability of a key nation that borders Israel, is locked in a strategic alliance with Iran and serves as a conduit for weapons and political support to Hezbollah in Lebanon and militant groups in the Palestinian territories. U.S. and European officials, despite their differences with Assad and his late father, Hafez, have long considered the clan preferable to Islamists believed to have a powerful political presence in Syria.
All signs pointed to the crisis growing graver, bloodier and deeper. The street protests, which used to break out only on Fridays, are now a daily occurrence in this tightly policed nation of 23 million.
President Obama said Friday in a statement carried by the Associated Press that the crackdown on protesters "must come to an end now" and accused Damascus of seeking Iranian help to repress its people. Although it condemned the violence, Obama's toughly worded statement did not refer to any potential U.S. consequences if Assad refused to heed his demands.
Hundreds of people have been killed by Syrian security forces answering to Assad, who is commander in chief as well as president, in five weeks of unrest.
Protesters, knowing they risk being slain, nevertheless have been flooding the streets, challenging the regime. Their simple calls for reform have spiraled into a roar demanding regime change.
At the same time, security forces have grown more brutal and the alternative reality portrayed on state media more divergent from the violence on the streets.
State media Friday downplayed the bloodiest day of civil unrest in the country's recent history as limited. Security forces, the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported, "used water hoses and tear gas to settle scuffles that erupted between demonstrators and citizens and to protect private properties."
The chasm of mistrust between the government and protesters has become so wide that activists now sit vigil outside hospital morgues to ensure the authorities don't snatch corpses of those killed to prevent politically charged funeral marches Saturday.
Throughout the country Friday, protesters chafing against the 48-year rule of the Assad clan and its Baath Party loyalists paid a dear price for marching on a Good Friday that probably will long resonate through Syrian history.
Amateur video posted on the Internet showed panicked protesters fleeing for cover as Assad's plainclothes and uniformed security officials, sometimes positioned on rooftops, fired on unarmed demonstrators.
Video showed a dead man allegedly shot by security forces lying near the city center of Damascus. Another gruesome video, reportedly taken from the southern city of Izra, showed a man carrying a boy with blood pouring from his head after he had been shot by security officials. "Oh God! Oh God!" a man yelled in despair.
Zaitouneh said at least 41 people were gunned down by plainclothes and uniformed security officials in Damascus and its suburbs, including Duma, Muadimiya, Kaboun, Barza, Hajar Aswad, Zamalka and Harasta.
Witnesses described cars and ambulances transporting dead and injured from scenes of violence.
"They were demonstrating when, all of a sudden, men in military uniforms began firing live ammunition and tear gas without warning," said a witness in a Damascus suburb.
Twenty people were killed in the city of Izra, said a medical official reached by telephone, and at least 21 were killed in Homs and another nearby city, Zaitouneh said. One person was also reportedly killed in Dara.