Reporting from Beirut — In what has become a weekly ritual of defiance against the regime of President Bashar Assad, massive protests erupted throughout Syria after noon prayers Friday as security forces continued to hammer the rebellious central city of Homs with intense gunfire.
At least five people have been reported killed in the violence so far, according to activists.
Amateur video footage posted to the Internet showed thousands of protesters gathering in cities and towns across the country, calling for the downfall of an embattled regime whose collapse could produce regional shock waves. For the first time, there were reports of large protests in previously quiet districts of central Aleppo, the country's second-largest city. Another clip said to have recorded at a mosque in the Medan district of central Damascus showed crowds clapping and chanting, "The people are free, Syria is free."
They also chanted slogans in support of besieged Homs, where the apparent abduction and killing of several members of Assad's minority Allawite Muslim community last week led to an all-out military assault on the country's third-largest city, with tank or artillery shells being fired at Sunni mosque minarets and residential districts, according to footage posted to the Internet. Dozens have been killed over the last week in what activists and observers describe as a cynical attempt by Assad to recast the anti-government protest as a sectarian war between Sunnis and Allawites, a Shiite Muslim offshoot.
"That is what the regime wants everyone to believe so they become afraid," said a Western diplomat in Damascus, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "And that is the challenge for the opposition -- they have to opt out of fearful propaganda and show that they are unified. But I think we've seen very little sectarian violence among ordinary citizens. Syria is not an extremist country."
The protesters, who have dubbed each Friday of protests with a theme, called the current outbreak of civil disobedience the day of "The Descendants of Khaled," a 7th-century disciple of the prophet Muhammad who unified the Arabian Peninsula and was buried in Homs. The symbolism was aimed at fusing the country's nationalist and religious sentiments to the aspirations of the protest movement, as well as emphasizing the long-espoused theme of national unity in the face of the potential sectarian strife.
"One flag, one people, one country," said a banner raised by demonstrators in the far eastern city of Dair Alzour, near the Iraqi border, where mass protests erupted.
Authorities cut off Internet and telephone access to Homs. One witness reached via satellite phone said he was cowering at home but could hear sporadic gunfire. He asked not to be named for fear of retribution. Authorities have begun aggressively targeting activists who provide information to independent media.
Another witness just to the west of Homs gave his name as Hassan and said the army was deploying along the Lebanese-Syrian border and that there was heavy gunfire in Homs.
"Large squads of mukhabarat [Syrian intelligence] and shabiba [pro-government militiamen] are roaming the streets inside the city," he said. "The Syrian army is deploying on the border. There are tanks and army members on some rooftops in villages near the border. They're worried about demonstrations and want to make sure that those injured in protests are not brought over the Lebanese border."
Nonetheless, protests broke out in some districts of the city Friday, according to the Local Coordinating Committee, a network of activists.
"A big demonstration is underway, up to tens of thousands of people," said the witness reached by satellite phone.
Security forces loyal to Assad also opened fire on protesters in the towns of Jabal Zawyeh and Kafr Nabl, in the country's restive northwest, according to information collected by the Syrian activists.
But security forces reportedly mostly fired tear gas at protesters in the country's volatile far northeastern Kurdish region, which has a history of insurrection against the Damascus government.
Sandels is a special correspondent.