Syrian security forces killed at least seven people, including a 13-year-old boy, as thousands of protesters poured out of mosques and marched through cemeteries at the start of Eid al-Fitr, a holiday when pious Muslims traditionally visit graves and pray for the dead.
The three-day holiday, which started on Tuesday, marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, a time of introspection that many protesters had hoped would become a turning point in the 5-month-old uprising. Instead, the government crackdown on dissent intensified and the conflict has become a bloody stalemate.
"They can shoot and kill as much as they want, we will not stop calling for regime change," an activist in the flashpoint Daraa province told The Associated Press by telephone, asking for anonymity out of fear of reprisals.
In Washington, the Obama administration announced a new set of sanctions on Syria. The regulations ban Americans from doing business with President Bashar Assad's foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, and two other senior officials, senior adviser Buthaina Shaaban; and Ali Abdul Karim Ali, Syria's ambassador to Lebanon. The Treasury Department's action Tuesday also blocks any assets the Syrian officials may have in the United States.
Tuesday's bloodshed was in the southern province of Daraa, the central city of Homs and the capital, Damascus, and its suburbs. Amateur videos posted by activists online showed protesters calling for the downfall of the regime and even the execution of Assad — a sign of how much the uprising against Assad has grown in both size and anger over the past five months.
The uprising began with modest calls for reform in Syria, an autocratic state that has been ruled by the same family for more than 40 years. But as the government crackdown escalated, so too did the protesters' demands. Now, most protesters are demanding nothing less than the downfall of the regime.
In the northern province of Idlib, a few hundred protesters marched with flower wreaths decorated with the Syrian flag and pictures of dead relatives. Many shouted: "Bashar, we don't want you!"
The Local Coordination Committees, an activist network, said six protesters were killed in Daraa province and one in Homs. An activist in Daraa confirmed the six deaths in Daraa, saying four were killed in the village of al-Harra and two others in Inkhil.
The deaths in al-Harra included a 13-year-old boy, they said.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported heavy gunfire in the Qaboun district of the capital Damascus, with five people injured.
State-run news agency SANA said Assad performed Eid prayers in the Hafez Assad Mosque in the capital, named after Assad's father, who ruled Syria with an iron fist for three decades until his death in 2000.
The UN says more than 2,200 people have been killed since the uprising erupted in March, touched off by the wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world.
The government crackdown escalated dramatically at the start of Ramadan, when Muslims typically gather in mosques during the month for special nightly prayers after breaking the dawn-to-dusk fast.
The Assad government used deadly force to prevent such large gatherings from turning into more anti-government protests.
The LCC activist network said Syrians were keeping their Eid celebrations to a minimum this year in solidarity with the Syrians who have died and the families of detainees.
"There will be no happiness while the martyrs' blood is still warm," it said in a statement Tuesday.
The Syrian government has placed severe restrictions on the media and expelled foreign reporters, making it nearly impossible to independently verify witness accounts.