Syria defies Assad with largest protests so far

Regime looks increasingly embattled as security forces open fire on crowds of hundreds of thousands. Khalid Ali reports

The Syrian regime was looking increasingly isolated yesterday as hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in some of the largest rallies of the uprising, despite an unprecedented attempt by President Bashar al-Assad to reach out to his political opponents.

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Marchers massed in city squares up and down the country, facing the bullets of Mr Assad's security forces, with at least nine people reported killed. A video posted on YouTube showed residents from a town in north-west Syria – a region which has been subject to a relentless army operation using tanks, troops and helicopter gunships – chanting "Bashar is a vampire" and holding anti-government placards.

Another film from Hama, north of Damascus, posted online by activists purports to show the city centre packed with tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators. An enormous flag is stretched out above the heads of protesters gathered in al-Assi Square, while crowds of cheering, banner-waving demonstrators are hemmed-in for as far as the eye can see.

President Assad, who earlier this week invited hundreds of opposition figures to Damascus for discussions on the future of the regime, again used his security forces to respond to the nationwide civil unrest with shootings and arrests. Human rights activists said the nine dead included three in the central city of Homs, where witnesses said soldiers fired on civilians from behind road blocks while armoured vehicles took up positions inside one of the city's old neighbourhoods.

Other activists told the Reuters news agency that injured civilians were being taken to hospitals on the outskirts of Homs to avoid the troops stationed at emergency wards in the city centre.

Ausama Monajed, a UK-based member of opposition umbrella group the National Initiative for Change, said: "The Syrian regime is still using the same old tactics. But it's very clear that the people are not afraid any more."

Human rights activists say more than 1,400 civilians have been killed since the uprising began in mid-March.

Yesterday's disturbances came after at least 19 people died during a two-day military operation in Syria's restive north-west. Troops and tanks continued their sweep through the area following an exodus of more than 10,000 refugees fleeing across the border into Turkey – a major source of embarrassment for the Baathist regime.

Advancing soldiers have shelled homes and slaughtered livestock as the Syrian government tries to wrest the province of Idlib back under its control. The operation began around three weeks ago after violence erupted in the north-western town of Jisr al-Shughour following police and army defections.

"They fear there will be sympathy for the people who are fleeing, and they are frightened that this will cause international pressure to mount on the regime," Mustafa Osso, a Syria-based human rights activist, told the Associated Press news agency.

Yesterday's violence came as the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, told a press conference during a Lithuania trip that the Baathist regime was "running out of time".

She said: "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 organised resistance."

The US and European Union have already imposed a series of sanctions on Mr Assad and his inner circle in response to the worsening violence in Syria. This week the US Treasury Department said it would also target Syria's security forces with further financial measures due to the government's brutal crackdown.

According to Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Ms Clinton's statement shows that the White House "isn't going to be satisfied with promises of cosmetic reform". "The opposition is organising faster than ever before. As it coalesces and a clear alternative takes shape, I expect the US position will become stronger," he said.

The nationwide protest movement has been gathering momentum ever since widespread unrest first erupted in the southern Syrian city of Deraa in mid-March. Shootings, arbitrary arrests and allegations of state-sponsored torture have failed to quell the insurrection. But, on Monday, the government appeared to change tack when it invited around 200 political opponents to a Damascus hotel for a discussion about the prospects of a negotiated solution.

A final communiqué from the meeting called for a "peaceful transition to a democratic, civil and pluralistic state", but many Syrian activists said delegates at the conference were being used as stool pigeons by a government playing for time. Radwan Ziadeh, a leading member of the Syrian opposition who is based in the US, said: "It wasn't clear who was behind this conference. Some of the people attending have no connection to the Syrian opposition at all."

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