Mass protests erupt across Syria, defying army presence

Thousands call for topple of Assad regime throughout central cities; snipers said to be on rooftops trying to prevent people from marching; roads leading to Damascus closed.

Syrian protesters in Deraa hoisting large flag 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian protesters in Deraa hoisting large flag 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
AMMAN - Thousands of Syrians called on Friday for the toppling of President Bashar Assad and pledged support for the city of Deraa where tanks and troops have tried to crush resistance to his authoritarian rule, activists said.
"The people want the overthrow of the regime!" demonstrators chanted in the Damascus suburb of Saqba, a witness said, defying violent repression in which 500 people have been killed since the nationwide protests broke out in Deraa last month.
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Demonstrations erupted on Friday in the central cities of Homs and Hama, Banias on the Mediterranean coast, Qamishly in eastern Syria and Harashta, a Damascus suburb. Shots were heard in coastal Latakia and two small protests broke out in Damascus, witnesses, an opposition leader and a human rights group said.
In Deraa, Syrian soldiers fired shots in the air to prevent people attending Friday prayers or protesting, a resident told Reuters. Another said busloads of people were heading to Deraa from nearby villages, trying to converge for demonstrations.
"The snipers are on rooftops of buildings firing at anything that moves. They are preventing people from going to the streets," Abu Mohammad told Al Jazeera television.
Witnesses said roads into Damascus were closed on Friday morning to prevent people marching from the rural areas around the capital into the city.
Wissam Tarif, director of the Insan human rights organization, said snipers were visible in several Damascus suburbs, including Harasta, Daraya, and Douma from where protesters had tried to march into the center of the capital in the last two weeks, only to be met by bullets.
Another witness said Republican Guard trucks equipped with machine guns patrolled the circular road around Damascus.
Syria's exiled Muslim Brotherhood, which has been largely on the sidelines of the protests so far, called on Syrians to take to the streets on Friday in support of Deraa, where a rights group said civilian deaths from the army attack rose to 50.
It was the first time that the Brotherhood, ruthlessly crushed along with secular leftist movements under the rule of late President Hafez Assad, had called directly for protests.
The group said accusations by Syrian authorities that militant Islamists were behind the unrest were wrong and aimed at fomenting civil war and undermining nationwide demands for political freedoms and an end to corruption.