17 killed as hundreds of thousands protest in Syria

Demonstrators determined to show strength of movement to Arab monitors; clashes erupt despite FSA directive to halt offensive.

Protesters carry a coffin near Homs, Syria 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Handout)
Protesters carry a coffin near Homs, Syria 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Handout)
Syrian security forces opened fire at protesters on Friday, killing at least 12, as hundreds of thousands filled the streets of restive cities to demonstrate against the government of President Bashar Assad, opposition activists said.
Five members of the security forces were also killed in a shooting in the city of Homs, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
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Assad, 46, has signed up to an Arab League plan for a verifiable withdrawal of his heavy weaponry and army from cities, where more than 5,000 people have been killed since March - many shot during peaceful anti-government protests but also many killed in rebel attacks and local defense actions.
But the presence of Arab League monitors in hotspots across Syria since Monday has, if anything, energized the protesters.
Demonstrators determined to show the strength of their movement to the monitors on Friday threw rocks at security forces in the Damascus suburb of Douma, where troops tear-gassed the chanting crowds.
Five people were shot dead in the city of Hama and five in the city of Deraa in the south as crowds braved army and police.
"We are determined to show them (the monitors) we exist. Whether or not there's bloodshed is not important," an activist named Abu Khaled said by telephone from the northern city of Idlib, one of the epicenters of nine months of unrest.
Most foreign media are banned from Syria and witness reports are hard to verify.
An opposition supporter named Manhal said thousands had tried to reach the main square to start a sit-in, but failed "because the security forces are firing a lot of tear gas and a few rounds of live fire."
"People hoped the presence of monitors will prevent fierce attacks. I believe we have partial protection, I don't think they would use live fire on us in front of the monitors."
The Observatory reported the deaths in Hama and Deraa. It said security forces had shot dead two people and wounded 37 in Idlib province. At least two dozen were also injured in the Damascus suburb of Douma, activists said.

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The Arab League mission has met with strong skepticism from the outset, over its makeup, its small numbers, its reliance on Syrian government logistics and an initial assessment by its Sudanese chief that the situation was "reassuring".
The anti-government Free Syrian Army has ordered its fighters to stop offensive operations pending a meeting with Arab League delegates monitoring Assad's compliance with the peace plan, the rebels' commander said.