Reporting from Beirut — Massive anti-government protests throughout Syria on Friday were met with violence by security forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, in defiance of increased Western pressure on the regime to radically reform.
At least 12 people were reported killed by mid-afternoon, with human rights activists warning that the number of dead was sure to rise, despite a purported "dialogue" between Assad's deputies and some regime critics that finished just days ago.
The protests followed a tense week between Syria and the West after provocative visits by U.S. Ambassador Robert S. Ford and French envoy Eric Chavallier to the restive city of Hama, which enraged Syrian authorities and prompted a series of increasingly testy exchanges between Western and Syrian officials. In an interview Tuesday, President Obama said Assad has lost his legitimacy but he stopped short of calling on the Syrian leader to step down.
A four-month uprising against Assad and his Baath Party's decades-long rule shows no sign of abating. Video footage posted to the Internet showed large pro-democracy protests in cities across the country after Friday prayers. Assad's security forces responded by unleashing deadly force and shutting down Internet and phone service in key parts of the country.
A Damascus-based Syrian human rights lawyer told The Times that the dead in Friday's protests included four in the northwestern province of Idlib, four in the southern city of Dara, and six in areas around Damascus.
The Syrian activist group Local Coordination Committees said security forces and pro-regime militiamen fired into a crowd of protesters in the city of Idlib in a still-murky incident. Activists also said a 13-year old boy was killed in the district of Khalidiyeh of Homs.
In the region of Ain Arab near Syria's second-largest city, Aleppo, activists said club-wielding members of the Syrian security forces attacked demonstrators. Security forces and pro-regime enforcers commonly known as shabiha were reported to have deployed in force in various areas, including in the village of Nemr in the southern Dara province and in the Damascus suburb of Daraya, where buses loaded with security forces and shabiha arrived in a bid to quell demonstrations.
But protesters remained defiant, with anti-regime demonstrations of tens of thousands of people reported in several parts of the country, such as the city of Dair Alzour in the east, the central city of Hama, and the Kurdish hub of Qamishli. Friday's protests took place as a call for freedom for prisoners of conscience. Activists say thousands of prisoners remain incarcerated after an intensification of raids on homes of dissidents.
"For freedom for the detainees, for the dignity of free men!" the protesters chanted.
Video footage posted to YouTube showed demonstrators calling for the release of prisoners and scorning Assad and his government. "Go out," crowds of demonstrators chanted in Qamishli to a rhythm of honking car horns, according to a clip. In the Damascus suburb of Qabon, protesters marched down a street chanting "God is great!" and carrying a banner reading "Game over Bashar."
In Homs, protesters carried a pre-Baath Party Syrian flag in a provocative gesture.
In the Damascus district of Midan on Wednesday night, security forces stormed a protest attended by about 250 Syrian intellectuals, television personalities and writers, arresting 31 people, including Syrian actress Mai Skaf, authors Yam Mashhadi and Rima Flaihan, and actor Nidal Hassan, according to activist reports.
In Dair Azour, video footage showed protesters singing a song by a popular folk singer who was recently killed in Hama by security forces.
On Monday, with security forces standing by, pro-regime enforcers stormed the U.S. and French embassies in Damascus, vandalazing the buildings and shaking up embassy staff.
Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in London contributed to this report. Sandels is a special correspondent.