Troops open fire across Syria as thousands defy crackdown

Scores dead after huge crowds gather to challenge Assad regime
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Syrian security forces fired bullets and tear gas at thousands of protesters who poured on to the streets across the country yesterday, braving the regime's deadly crackdown in a renewed effort to unseat President Bashar al-Assad.

One human rights group reported 62 deaths across the country, including in the besieged southern city of Deraa, where tanks have been deployed in the streets to quell unrest in the town at the heart of the protest movement. Security forces reportedly fired on thousands of people who tried to enter the city from surrounding villages.

Fatalities were also reported in Homs in central Syria and in the north-western coastal city of Latakia, a bastion of the ruling elite where the security services opened fire on thousands of demonstrators who had gathered after Friday prayers, witnesses said.

"I think a number of people were shot dead during the demonstration," one witness in Latakia told The Independent. "Thousands of people were protesting peacefully in the streets and then I heard gunshots. People started screaming. I could hear the bullets hitting the walls."

Another witness from Latakia told the Associated Press that the firing came from plain-clothed security men wielding automatic weapons.

Security forces also fired on demonstrators in Damascus, where thousands of people emerged on to the streets after prayers despite heavy rain.

In Midan, a district just south of Damascus's Old City, witnesses said the security forces used guns and tear gas to break up the demonstrators. One middle-aged man who lives in the area said: "We came to support the people of Deraa, but now the government is firing on us. There are thousands of us here. We are ready to sacrifice ourselves for the martyrs in Deraa."

There were also reports of shooting in Sayeda Zeinab, a southern suburb of Damascus, and Qaboon in the city's north-western outskirts. Elsewhere, protests took place in the north-western city of Baniyas, Raqqa in the north and Qamishli in the north-east and Harasta, a Damascus suburb.

The renewed civil unrest suggests the violent government crackdown on protests – which one human rights group says has left more than 500 dead since they began six weeks ago – is doing little to stamp out anti-government sentiment across the country, with protesters determined to end the 48-year repressive rule of the Ba'ath Party, ruled by Assad's father before him.

In Deraa, where the first large-scale protests began in mid-March, witnesses told Reuters and Al Jazeera that thousands of people from surrounding villages attempted to enter the city to join the protests but were fired at by security services. Up to 15 deaths were reported.

A human rights researcher said many of the injured in Deraa were not receiving proper medical help because the security services were controlling access to hospitals. "They are doing security checks before admitting serious cases," he said.

The demonstrations appear to be growing. Protests in recent weeks appeared disorganised and sporadic, but amateur videos shot yesterday showed large numbers of people carrying banners and slogans and waving large Syrian flags.

Marchers in the Damascus suburb of Daraya shouted: "The Syrian people are one!" While in Midan, they chanted: "With our blood and soul we sacrifice for you Deraa."

One Damascus-based activist said: "The more people the regime kills, the more people will take to the streets."

A woman from Salamiya, a city in central Syria, said the number of protesters had grown significantly. "I feel so proud," she said. "In Salamiya, they have bad memories of government repression. They've arrested so many people. I thought they wouldn't go out because of what they've seen. But they are finally doing it."

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