Middle East

Islamist Group Backs Calls for Syria Mass Protests

April 28: Lebanese police arrest a man as protesters tried to block a road during a sit-in against the sectarian makeup of Lebanon's government in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP)

April 28: Lebanese police arrest a man as protesters tried to block a road during a sit-in against the sectarian makeup of Lebanon's government in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP)

The banned Muslim Brotherhood urged Syrians to take to the streets on Friday as activists called for a "Day of Rage" against President Bashar Assad's regime, which has stepped up its deadly crackdown on protesters by unleashing the army along with snipers and tanks.

The government warned against holding any demonstrations. Syrian state television said the Interior Ministry has not approved any "march, demonstration or sit-in" and that such rallies seek only to harm Syria's security and stability.

Activists in Syria are planning nationwide protests following Muslim prayers in solidarity with more than 50 people killed in the last week alone in Daraa, a southern city at the heart of the revolt.

Since the uprising in Syria began in mid-March, inspired by revolts across the Arab world, more than 450 people have been killed nationwide, activists say.

Friday's statement by the Muslim Brotherhood was the first time the outlawed group has openly encouraged the protests in Syria. The Brotherhood was crushed by Assad's father, Hafez, after staging an uprising against his regime in 1982.

"You were born free so don't let a tyrant enslave you," said the statement, issued by the Brotherhood's exiled leadership.

Assad has said the protests -- the gravest challenge to his family's 40-year ruling dynasty -- are a foreign conspiracy carried out by extremist forces and armed thugs.

But he has acknowledged the need for reforms, offering overtures of change in recent weeks while brutally cracking down on demonstrations.

Last week, Syria's Cabinet abolished the state of emergency and approved a new law allowing the right to stage peaceful protests with the permission of the Interior Ministry.

But the protesters, enraged by the mounting death toll, no longer appear satisfied with the changes and are increasingly seeking the regime's downfall.

"We are preparing for a big demonstration today," said an activist in the coastal city of Banias, which witnessed a large demonstration last Friday. "The people want the downfall of the regime."

Syria has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted access to trouble spots since the uprising began, making it almost impossible to verify the dramatic events shaking one of the most authoritarian, anti-Western regimes in the Arab world.

Witnesses and human rights groups said Syrian army units clashed with each other on Wednesday over following Assad's orders to crack down on protesters in Daraa, a besieged city where the uprising started.

While the troops' infighting in Daraa does not indicate any decisive splits in the military, it is significant because Assad's army has always been the regime's fiercest defender.

It is the latest sign that cracks -- however small -- are developing in Assad's base of support that would have been unimaginable just weeks ago. Also, about 200 mostly low-level members of Syria's ruling Baath Party have resigned over Assad's brutal crackdown.