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 in Syria. Amateur video posted on the Internet showed panicked protesters fleeing for cover as Assad's plainclothes and uniformed security officers, some of them positioned on rooftops, fired on unarmed demonstrators.
Video showed a dead man allegedly shot by security forces lying near the 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 officers. "Oh God! Oh God!" a man yelled in despair.
Zaitouneh, the human rights lawyer, said at least 41 people were gunned down by plainclothes and uniformed security forces in Damascus and its suburbs, including Duma, Moadamyeh, Kaboun, Barza, Hajar Aswad, Zamalka and Harasta.
Witnesses described cars and ambulances transporting dead and injured protesters 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.
"People are asking for civil rights and freedom and they are peaceful," one activist said. "No arms could be seen in the hands of these people. The use of live fire is a sign that the regime has lost control on the ground."
The nationwide demonstrations were a sharp rebuke of efforts by Assad to assuage his opponents by lifting an emergency law, abolishing a secretive security court and granting citizens the right to peaceful protests.
Protesters have dramatically upped their demands, which just a few weeks ago consisted of removing the five-decade-old emergency law. Now they explicitly want Assad's ouster.
The public statements, slogans and gestures of government opponents now reflect a sharp change in sentiment against Assad and his clan, members of the minority Alawite community that dominates the mostly Sunni Muslim country's economy, political arena and security forces.
A committee of activists that claimed to represent groups across the country issued a precedent-setting statement demanding the Syrian state implement broad democratic reforms; stop torturing, killing and arresting peaceful demonstrators; issue a formal apology; and declare three days of mourning. They called for an independent public commission to investigate the violence.
"We demand the immediate release of all political prisoners, as well as the release of all detainees held by our national security agencies, including those sentenced by special interim courts after having been arrested by our security forces," the statement said.
Much of Friday's violence unfolded in the suburbs and satellite cities of Damascus after security officials flooded the center of the capital in a mostly successful effort to keep massive protests from erupting in the seat of Assad's power.
In Maidan, near the center of Damascus, protesters could be seen in one online video striking portraits of Assad with their fists.
"We want the murderers of our martyrs to be tried," protesters in Dara were heard to say on a video.
Another video showed protesters in Qetaireh, in the country's southwest, tearing down a statue of one of the Assads and ripping down posters with their portraits.
"We're not from the Muslim Brotherhood and we're not Salafists," they chanted in Homs, Syria's third-largest city, in an attempt to counter regime propaganda depicting the protesters as extremists connected to the Salafi or Wahhabi branch of Islam that inspires Osama bin Laden.
"We want freedom!"
Protests also broke out in the Kurdish city of Qamishli, but there were no reports of violence; Assad probably is calculating that he cannot afford to further inflame passions among the country's most volatile and restless ethnic minority, at least for now.
Special correspondents Roula Hajjar in Beirut and a special correspondent in Damascus contributed to this report.