Residents of the Lebanese city of Tripoli hold a protest in solidarity with… (Omar Ibrahim, Reuters )
Reporting from Beirut — At least 24 Syrian protesters were killed Friday when security forces fired on demonstrators in cities across the country, according to witnesses and activists.
The violence came just four days after President Bashar Assad's government allowed some dissidents to meet at a Damascus hotel. Other activists had labeled the highly publicized forum a government-backed public relations gimmick.
The protests Friday drew some of the largest crowds since the antigovernment uprisings began in Syria in mid-March. Protesters continued to demand the resignation of Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades, defiantly calling for a "Friday of Departure." The protests have become a weekly ritual after the Friday congregational Muslim prayers.
In Homs, Syria's third-largest city, protesters carried banners declaring "No to Dialogue," underscoring their contention that the government's promise of reforms is merely a tactic to stay in power.
"The Syrian people refuse dialogue because of the absence of trust," said Mazen Darwish, who issued a statement with other dissidents. "The regime has failed politically and spiritually."
According to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, an opposition network, half the fatalities Friday occurred in the northwestern province of Idlib. Other victims included three in the northwestern region of Jabal Zawiya; three in Homs; two in the Damascus suburb of Qadam; and one in the port city of Latakia.
An opposition spokesman said that more than 200,000 people marched in both Homs and Hama. Activists called Friday's gathering the largest to date in Homs, a largely Sunni Muslim city, where government opponents say resentment of Assad's ruling Alawite clan is widespread. Alawites are members of a small Shiite Muslim sect.
The large turnout in Hama, north of Homs, occurred after the reported withdrawal of Syrian security forces from the city, which they have been doing each week for some time now. The city has powerful symbolic significance as the site of a violent crackdown in 1982 against Sunni Muslim activists by then-President Hafez Assad, Bashar's father.
Security forces were out in large numbers in Aleppo, activists said, a day after the largest demonstrations to date in the city, Syria's second-most-populous. "Go away you, and your party!" was the message to Assad posted Friday on the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page, an online rallying point.
In the town of Bokamal near the Syrian-Iraqi border, demonstrators marched down a street hoisting a banner declaring "Get Out" as chants of "God is great" emanated from a truck-mounted loudspeaker, according to a clip posted to YouTube.
It was impossible to verify crowd numbers and the casualty count, as Syrian authorities have placed strict limits on journalists.
Activists say more than 1,400 people have been killed by security forces since the protests began. Syrian officials have blamed armed thugs and saboteurs for the deaths.
Sandels is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.