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Syria 'Great Friday' Protest Turns Bloody

A cellphone picture purportedly shows Syrian anti-government protesters taking part in a demonstration in the northeastern city of Banias on Friday.
AFP/Getty Images
A cellphone picture purportedly shows Syrian anti-government protesters taking part in a demonstration in the northeastern city of Banias on Friday.

Syrian security forces fired bullets and tear gas Friday at tens of thousands of protesters across the country, killing at least 75 people in the bloodiest day of the monthlong uprising and signaling that the authoritarian regime was prepared to turn more ruthless to put down the revolt against President Bashar Assad.

Among the dead were a 70-year-old man and two boys ages 7 and 10, Amnesty International said. In the southern town of Izraa, a man ran carrying the body of a young boy, whose hair was matted with blood from a gaping wound on his head, as another child wept and shouted, "My brother!" Footage of the scene was posted on the protest movement's main Facebook pace.

In other towns, protesters scattered for cover from sniper bullets, then dragged corpses through the streets. Mobile phone images showed the bodies lined up on the floor inside buildings.

The rallies, most marching out from mosques after Friday's noon Muslim prayers, erupted in towns and cities stretching along the breadth of the country, including in at least two suburbs of the capital, Damascus.

The death toll was likely to rise, raising fears that there will be an explosion of violence Saturday as relatives bury their dead in funerals that in the past have turned into new protests. Ammar Qurabi, head of Syria's National Organization for Human Rights, said another 20 people were missing.

Friday's toll was double that of the previous deadliest day of the uprising, on April 8, when 37 were killed around the country. The heavier crackdown came after Assad warned a week ago that any further unrest would be considered "sabotage" after he made the gesture of lifting long-hated emergency laws, a step he ratified on Thursday.

It was a clear sign that regime was prepared to escalate an already bloody response, with nearly 300 already dead in more than five weeks. Previously, Assad has mixed the crackdown with gestures of reform in a failed attempt to deflate the protests.

A Syrian soldier hid behind a sand bag barricade in the central city of Homs on Friday.
/ AP
A Syrian soldier hid behind a sand bag barricade in the central city of Homs on Friday.

The bloodshed so far has only served to invigorate protesters whose demands have snowballed from modest reforms to the downfall of the 40-year Assad family dynasty. Each Friday, growing numbers of people in multiple cities have taken to the streets despite the near certainty that they would come under swift attack from security forces and shadowy pro-government gunmen known as "shabiha."

For the first time Friday, organized groups coordinated a list of demands, including an end to torture and violence, the release of political prisoners, and setting a date for a presidential election.

"The people want the downfall of the regime!" shouted protesters in Douma, a Damascus suburb where some 40,000 people took to the streets, eyewitnesses told the AP. It is the same rallying cry that was heard during the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.

Other massive protests were reported in the coastal city of Banias, the northeastern Kurdish region and the southern city of Daraa, where the uprising kicked off more than a month ago.

Hilal Hesham, a professor at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, said Daraa has become a symbol of the failure of Syria's security service when children were arrested for writing anti-government graffiti.

"They removed their fingernails. These are 13-year-olds," he said. "Yes, they tortured them for writing on walls, 'Down with the regime.' Their families went crazy and that started the upheaval in Syria."

Activists had promised that Friday's protests would be the biggest rallies yet against the regime led by Assad, who inherited power from his father 11 years ago in one of the most authoritarian countries in the Middle East.

The protests are growing larger, but have yet to reach the capital. Karim Makdisi, a political analyst in Beirut, saidAssad can still count on support in Damascus — the business community and minority groups that worry chaos means more violence and a civil war.

"I still think there is a large segment of the Syrian population that would gladly embrace a kind of stability with serious reform rather than total change," he said.

But the death count Friday makes it all the harder, he added.

"If this continues in the days and weeks ahead and escalates, and the regime continues to respond heavy handedly toward people then the tipping point will come sooner rather than later," Makdisi said.

Anti-government groups were uploading videos of the protest on what is being called "Great Friday" to YouTube to spur others to join.

Friday rallies always have a theme and a name, said Rami Nakhle, a Syrian cyber activist based in Beirut. "We call it the Great Friday, in solidarity with the Syrian Christian," he said. It is Good Friday for Christians, but the Syrian government banned the traditional public celebration ahead of Easter.

Assad has been trying to defuse such protests by launching a bloody crackdown along with a series of concessions, most recently lifting emergency laws that gave authorities almost boundless powers of surveillance and arrest.

He also has fulfilled a decades-old demand by granting citizenship to thousands among Syria's long-ostracized Kurdish minority, fired local officials, released detainees and formed a new government.

But many protesters said the concessions have come too late — and that Assad does not deserve the credit.

"The state of emergency was brought down, not lifted," prominent Syrian activist Suhair Atassi, who was arrested several times in the past, wrote on her Twitter page. "It is a victory as a result of demonstrations, protests and the blood of martyrs who called for Syria's freedom."

Earlier Friday, witnesses said security forces in uniform and plainclothes set up checkpoints around the Damascus suburb of Douma, checking people's identity cards and preventing nonresidents from going in.

Syria stands in the middle of the most volatile conflicts in region because of its alliances with militant groups like Lebanon's Hezbollah and with Shiite powerhouse Iran. That has given Damascus a pivotal role in most of the flashpoint issues of the region, from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran's widening influence.

If the regime in Syria wobbles, it also throws into disarray the U.S. push for engagement with Damascus, part of Washington's plan to peel the country away from its allegiance to Hamas, Hezbollah and Tehran.

NPR's Deborah Amos reported from Beirut, Lebanon, for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.

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NPR Staff and Wires