Turkish soldiers carry their lunches as Syrian refugees attend Friday… (Umit Bektas, Reuters )
Reporting from Beirut — Syrian security officers opened fire on protesters Friday, leaving as many as 20 dead, as people poured into the streets across the nation in defiance of President Bashar Assad and his promise of limited reform, according to opposition activists.
Meanwhile, the European Union slapped fresh sanctions on Syria and its principal regional ally, Iran, which has been accused of collaborating in the crackdown against protesters.
Friday's anti-government marches, some tied to Friday prayers, reportedly were some of the largest in the 3-month-old protest movement that has convulsed the strategically situated Arab nation.
Large demonstrations were reported in the central cities of Homs and Hama, the suburbs of Damascus, the mainly Kurdish city of Qamishli in the north, and the eastern oil hub of Dair Alzour, according to activist accounts and amateur video footage.
Footage from Hama, one of the centers of the protest movement, showed what appeared to be tens of thousands of people in the streets shouting anti-Assad slogans.
Outside Damascus, the capital, security forces responded with gunfire and tear gas to protests in the suburbs of Barze and Midan, according to activists. A witness in Barze said uniformed and plainclothes officers were conducting "mass arrests … taking whoever is standing in the street."
Another witness said that regime gunmen started firing at a large gathering in south Damascus, resulting in an unknown number of injuries.
The witnesses requested anonymity for fear of retribution. It is difficult to corroborate information coming from inside Syria because the regime has placed strict limits on media access.
In central Homs, loyalist shabiha militiamen were reported roaming the streets, while security forces beat protesters with sticks near a mosque in the Midan district of Damascus, according to the activist network the Local Coordination Committees in Syria. The group accused security forces of opening fire on demonstrators and put the number dead nationwide on Friday at 20, including several children.
On Friday, more than 8,000 people from the villages and cities of Saqba, Hamouria and Jisreen, all near Damascus, were reported to be protesting in joint rallies, calling for the toppling of the regime.
Videos said to have been filmed at a protest in the largely Kurdish Amouda showed two young boys carrying a banner with the slogan "Bashar is no longer my president and the government doesn't represent me!" as crowds behind them hoisted a huge Syrian flag and chanted: "The people want the downfall of the regime."
Another clip, filmed in the village of Kobani in the province of Aleppo, showed demonstrators holding banners reading "Friday of the fall of legitimacy."
The government's official Syrian Arab News Agency reported that a security officer was "martyred" outside Damascus, while "gunmen opened fire" on police and others in Barze, killing three citizens and injuring an unspecified number of law enforcement personnel.
The government said "saboteurs" attacked shops in Homs, while security forces and "armed groups" exchanged fire outside the city and unidentified gunmen "kidnapped an ambulance carrying injured people" in the countryside.
The protests came only a few days after Assad offered vague promises of reform in a speech and Foreign Minister Walid Moallem blamed the West for inciting violence in the Arab nation.
Friday's marches also coincided with the European Union slapping new sanctions on four Syrians, four Syrian businesses, and three Iranian officials for Syria's crackdown on protesters. The Europeans charge that Tehran, a close ally of the Assad government, is supporting the regime's brutal measures.
The EU had already placed sanctions on 23 Syrians, including Assad himself and several of his closest aides.
Mashallah Shamsulvaezin, an analyst close to Iran's moderate camp, told the Times the sanctions constituted a symbolic action, but he doubted the practical effect.
Sandels is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Ramim Mostaghim in Tehran, Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut and a special correspondent in Damascus contributed to this report.