CAIRO – The protest movement against Syrian President Bashar Assad's authoritarian rule proved its resilience Friday as thousands of people took to the streets in cities across the country, brushing off Assad's limited gestures of reform and defying security forces who beat them back with tear gas, batons and bullets.
At least three people were killed, bringing the death toll from two weeks of demonstrations to at least 75. The government blamed Friday's bloodshed on "armed gangs." However, the state-run news agency acknowledged for the first time that Syria was seeing gatherings of people calling for reform.
The extraordinary wave of protests has proved the most serious challenge yet to the four-decade ruling dynasty of the Assad family, one of the most rigid regimes in the Middle East.
"There's this incredible momentum that has built up across the Middle East that has galvanized people" in Syria, said Joshua Landis, an American professor and Syria expert. But the regime will likely crush any attempts to keep up the resistance — unless the opposition movement can rally enough people to overwhelm the army, he said.
The long-term strength of the burgeoning protest movement is difficult to gauge because Syria has restricted media access and expelled journalists, making it difficult to determine the extent of the protests and how many people are turning out. Two Associated Press journalists were ordered to leave the country Friday with less than an hour's notice.
But the regime had appeared fairly confident in recent days that it could appease the protesters.
Assad made his first public appearance Wednesday since the demonstrations began, blaming a "foreign conspiracy" for the unrest. He then announced he was forming committees to look into civilian deaths and the possibility of replacing Syria's despised emergency laws, which have been in place for decades and allow security forces to arrest people without charge.
His reaction enraged many Syrians who hoped to see more serious concessions after the wave of protests in a country where any rumblings of dissent are crushed.
The unrest comes against the backdrop of revolutionary change across the wider Middle East, including Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
In Yemen on Friday, hundreds of thousands packed a square in the capital and marched in villages and cities across the nation, demanding that longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh step down. The demonstrations appeared to be the largest in more than a month of protests.
Analysts say that by blaming outsiders and offering only minor concessions, Assad is following a strategy that failed leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, who were swept out of power by popular uprisings.
"That speech was a disappointment to everyone," said Andrew Tabler at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "So I think (Friday's protests) are definitely a reaction."
Friday was billed by activists as a "Day of Martyrs," with mass demonstrations in honor of those killed in the protests.
Several eyewitnesses told The Associated Press by telephone that up to 5,000 people were marching in Daraa — an impoverished southern city that has become the epicenter for the movement — shouting "We want freedom!" and "The blood of martyrs is not cheap!" The account could not be independently confirmed.
An activist in Douma, just outside Damascus, the capital, said that he and hundreds of others came under attack by security forces as they left the town's Grand Mosque, chanting slogans for freedom. The troops hit people with clubs and threw stones before firing tear gas and finally live ammunition.
"I saw three people dead and six wounded," said the activist, who, like the other witnesses requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. "Douma's streets are now totally empty except for security forces."
Protests also were reported in the northeastern city of Qamishli and the central city of Homs.
Scores of plainclothes security agents deployed Friday in Damascus near the historic Umayyad mosque. A crowd of at least 300 Assad supporters, carrying Syrian flags and pictures of the president, broke out into clapping and chants of "Allah, Syria, Bashar!" Security forces made no attempt to stop them.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner condemned the violence and called on Syrian authorities to allow peaceful demonstrations.
"We've been very clear all along in our support for their essential rights to express their views," he told reporters in Washington.
The unrest in Syria could have implications well beyond the country's borders, given its role as Iran's top Arab ally and as a front line state against Israel.
The protests also have brought the country's internal, sectarian tensions into the open for the first time in decades. Syria has a Sunni majority ruled by minority Alawites, a branch of Shiite Islam.
Assad has placed his fellow Alawites into most positions of power in Syria. But he also has increased economic freedom and prosperity to win the allegiance of the prosperous Sunni Muslim merchant classes. Dissenters have been punished with arrest, imprisonment and physical abuse.
Assad inherited power 11 years ago at the age of 34 after the death of his father, Hafez, who ruled Syria with an iron fist for three decades. While Assad came to power promising reforms, internal challengers and regional upheaval have slowed down the reform process, including an old guard that fears an end to its privileges.
Syrians have seemed generally sympathetic to Assad facing an old guard clinging to power — but now, it seems, many are starting to tire of the excuse.
AP writers Bassem Mroue Beirut, Lebanon, and Ahmed Al Haj in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.