A Syrian man faces riot police at Khalidia, near Homs. Thousands of protesters… (Handout, Reuters )
Reporting from Beirut — Government troops opened fire Friday on demonstrators across Syria, opposition activists said, killing at least 20 people and raising new questions about the viability of an Arab League-brokered peace accord designed to end the almost 8-month-old conflict.
The opposition called the attacks a violation of the fragile pact that Syria and other Arab nations signed Wednesday in Cairo.
"The Syrian regime breaks its promises," proclaimed banners held aloft by protesters in the northwestern province of Idlib and seen on amateur videos broadcast by Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite TV network.
Despite cold and rain, thousands of protesters in various locales took to the streets after midday Friday prayers to renew calls for the resignation of President Bashar Assad. Opposition activists had urged people to turn out to test whether the government was abiding by the terms of the peace deal.
The accord calls for an immediate halt to violence, a withdrawal of armed security forces from Syrian cities, a release of political prisoners and a new "dialogue" between the government and its opponents. The Syrian government has vowed to comply.
But opposition activists say there has been no sign of compliance, suggesting that Damascus signed the pact in a bid to buy time for the embattled regime.
There was no immediate comment Friday from the government, which announced a new "amnesty" for "insurgents" willing to turn themselves in to authorities and surrender their weapons. The opposition said it didn't expect much of a response.
The government has blamed the violence on "armed groups" and "terrorists" engaged in a foreign-based conspiracy. The opposition says it is rebelling against more than four decades of autocratic rule by Assad and his late father, Hafez.
The United Nations and the Obama administration and other governments have condemned what they call the regime's brutal crackdown on protesters, which has led to the deaths of more than 3,000 people since antigovernment rallies began in mid-March. Damascus has said Muslim extremists and other terrorists have conducted a campaign of sabotage, bombings and shootings, killing more than 1,000 security personnel.
The Assad government has warned against foreign intervention and organized a series of massive pro-government rallies, the latest of which took place Friday in the Mediterranean port city of Tartus. Assad says he has embarked on an ambitious reform plan, including a revamped constitution, and has publicly warned of catastrophic consequences throughout the Middle East should his regime be overthrown.
Most experts say Assad still has considerable support, especially among the Syrian business elite and among minorities, including Christians, who fear sectarian warfare if he is forced out.
Government opponents call Assad's proposed reforms a sham that would keep control in the hands of the long-dominant Baath Party.
Representatives of one major opposition group, the Syrian National Council, insisted Friday that the only dialogue with the government that would be acceptable is one that leads to Assad's ouster.
One opposition council member, Samir Nashar, told Egypt's MENA news agency that the goal was to "move from a totalitarian to a democratic system," with Assad stepping aside.
The opposition on Friday accused the government of renewed attacks on civilians, including tank shelling of neighborhoods in the central city of Homs, focal point of recent protests.
"Security forces and the army … started firing on demonstrations, leading to injuries and martyrs," said Salem, an opposition activist in Homs who, like others contacted in Syria on Friday, declined to give his full name because of safety concerns.
The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition umbrella group, said eight people were killed Friday in Homs. The group said protesters also marched in suburban Damascus; in Aleppo, the nation's second-largest city; in the eastern city of Deir Alzour; and the southern province of Dara, among other areas. In Rastan, near Homs, more than two dozen people were arrested in a security sweep, the group said.
Two people were reported killed in the opposition stronghold of Hama, where a resident said members of the security forces and pro-regime militia attacked at least one demonstration.
"They are firing directly at crowds," said the resident, who gave his name as Saif.
Meanwhile, Syrian state television quoted the Interior Ministry on Friday as saying "insurgents" would be granted amnesty if they turned themselves in and handed over their weapons within the next few days.
"The Interior Ministry calls on citizens who carried weapons, sold them, delivered them, transported them or funded buying them, and did not commit crimes, to turn themselves in to the nearest police station," state TV was quoted by media sources as saying.
Opposition activists predicted that few would turn themselves in. A resident of Homs called the proposed amnesty "one big lie."
The U.S. State Department on Friday advised Syrians not to give themselves up.
"I wouldn't advise anybody to turn themselves in to regime authorities at the moment," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington. "This would be about the fourth amnesty that they've offered since I took this job about five months ago."
Meanwhile, news agencies reported that the French government had added its voice to those saying the Assad regime's continued crackdown represented an abrogation of its commitments to the Arab League peace process.
McDonnell is a Times staff writer and Sandels a special correspondent. Times staff writer Paul Richter in the Washington bureau and special correspondent Katie Paul in Beirut contributed to this report.