AMMAN - Syrian forces killed at least 24 civilians on Friday during pro-democracy protests across Syria and in military assaults on villages in a region bordering Turkey, prominent human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouna said.
Zaitouna told Reuters by phone that the 24 included seven people in the central city of Homs, scene of widening protests against President Bashar Assad and 14 villagers in the northwestern province of Idlib, where troops backed by tanks and helicopters have been storming villages to subdue dissent in rural areas near Turkey.
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Earlier on Friday, tens of thousands of people called on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down in some of the biggest demonstrations since Syria's uprising began in March.
The Local Coordination Committees, a group of grassroots activists, said three demonstrators were shot dead in the central city of Homs, three in the northern province of Idlib, two in Damascus suburbs and one in Latakia.
Defying Assad's military crackdown, demonstrators took to the streets again after Friday prayers across the country, from towns near the western Lebanese border to the desert regions near Iraq in the east.
"Bashar get out of our lives," read placards carried by thousands of Kurds who marched in the northeastern city of Amouda, according to a YouTube video taken by resident.
In the city of Hama, video footage appeared to show tens of thousands of
protesters massed in a central square. Witnesses and activists said
demonstrators in Hama and in Kurdish eastern areas carried red cards,
employing a soccer symbol to demand Assad's "sending off".
Authorities banned most international media from operating in Syria
since the outbreak of the protests in March, making it difficult to
verify reports from activists and authorities.
State television said gunmen had fired on security forces in Homs in several other towns, wounding two of them.
In the old Homs district of Bab Sbaa, a witness said several armored
vehicles deployed and soldiers fired at protesters from road blocks set
up in main streets in the city of one million.
Another activist in Homs said the death toll could be higher, with
troops surrounding a private hospital in Bab Sbaa and several wounded
people rushed to another hospital on the outskirts of the city where
security forces were not present.Assad's 'time running out'
Protesters have taken to the streets for 14 weeks to protest against
Assad in unrest which has claimed the lives of around 1,300 civilians,
according to rights groups. Authorities say 500 police and soldiers have
been killed by gunmen they also blame for most of the civilian deaths.
Alongside the military crackdown, Assad has promised a national dialogue
on political reforms and on Monday gave a rare platform to opposition
demands when authorities allowed a conference in Damascus attended by
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was "disheartened" by
reports of continued violence near the Syrian border with Turkey.
Monday's meeting in Damascus, she said, was not enough on its own to
address demands for reform.
"It is absolutely clear that the Syrian government is running out of time," she said during a visit to Lithuania.
"They are either going to allow a serious political process that will
include peaceful protests to take place throughout Syria and engage in a
productive dialogue with members of the opposition and civil society,
or they're going to continue to see increasingly organized resistance."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that tank assaults killed
three people overnight in hillside villages of the northern Idlib
province near the Turkish border.
Around 100 people crossed over into Lebanon early on Friday, witnesses
said. Thousands have fled to Lebanon during the three months of unrest,
but many have returned and it is unclear how many remain in Lebanon.
Syrian television showed a pro-Assad demonstration of around 100 people
in the northern city of Aleppo on Friday, and state media reported
several other large gatherings on Thursday which they said expressed
support for Assad's proposed reforms.