Middle East

Syrian Security Forces Fire on Rallies, Killing 30

Oct. 26, 2011: Syrian regime supporters hold up Bashar Assad's portrait and a man holds up a banner that reads "Thank China and Russia" during a rally in Umayyad Square in downtown Damascus, Syria.

Oct. 26, 2011: Syrian regime supporters hold up Bashar Assad's portrait and a man holds up a banner that reads "Thank China and Russia" during a rally in Umayyad Square in downtown Damascus, Syria.  (AP2011)

BEIRUT -- Syrian security forces killed about 30 people Friday as mass protests erupted calling for the downfall of President Bashar Assad's regime, activists said.

It was the highest death toll in weeks stemming from the 7-month-old uprising.

Much of the bloodshed happened after the protests had ended and security forces hunted protesters and activists, according to opposition groups monitoring the demonstrations.

Authorities disrupted telephone and Internet service in restive areas, they said.

Syria's revolt has proved remarkably resilient, with protests erupting every week despite the near-certainty they will face bullets and tear gas. The U.N. estimates the government crackdown on the protests has killed 3,000 people since March.

The Syrian opposition's two main activist groups, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordinating Committees, gave figures for the protesters killed on Friday ranging from 29 to 37.

The flashpoints were Homs and Hama in central Syria, where opposition to the regime is strong. Hama is the site of a massacre nearly 30 years ago which has come to symbolize the ruthlessness of the Assad dynasty.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, the head of the observatory, said security forces in Homs were firing machine guns as they chased down protesters and activists. In Hama, there were heavy clashes between the army and gunmen believed to be army defectors.

Syria has largely sealed off the country from foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting, making it difficult to confirm events on the ground. Key sources of information are amateur videos posted online, witness accounts and details gathered by activist groups.

Communications were spotty Friday in the Damascus suburb of Douma and in Homs. The move appeared to be an attempt to cut off the opposition's ability to organize and report on the protests.

"There was a very fierce reaction to the protests in Homs today," said Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso. Syrian forces opened fire as some 2,000 people gathered for protests, he said.

"There are many injured as well. Hospitals are having a hard time coping with the casualties," Osso told The Associated Press.

Majd Amer, an activist in Homs said sporadic gunfire could be heard as protesters poured out of mosques following Friday prayers.

It is difficult to gauge the strength of the revolt in Syria, a country of 22 million people. The crackdown does not appear to have significantly reduced the number of protests, but neither does the regime appear to be in any imminent danger of collapse.

The regime appears to lack sufficient numbers of loyal troops to garrison all the centers of unrest at the same time, so government forces will often sweep through an area in the wake of protests, breaking up new gatherings and hunting activists, before being deployed elsewhere.

The result has been a months-long stalemate. Still, the capture and subsequent death of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, under still-unclear circumstances, has energized the opposition. Last week, thousands of Syrians took to the streets shouting that Assad will be next.

The protests come amid efforts by the Arab League to end the bloodshed, and debates within the opposition on how to bring international pressure to bear on the regime.

On Friday, many protesters said they wanted a no-fly zone established over Syria to protect civilians in case the Syrian regime considers attacking protesters from the sky, the activist groups said.

The protesters also called for international monitors, although most opposition groups reject the idea of foreign military intervention.

The Syrian government insists the unrest is being driven by terrorists and foreign extremists looking to stir up sectarian strife.