President Bashar al-Assad’s forces shot dead on Friday at least 28 anti-Assad protesters whose numbers were swelled by the killing of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, activists and residents said.
Most of the killings were in the central city of Homs and in Hama to the north, scene of some of the largest military operations in a crackdown on the seven month uprising, where a nascent insurgent movement has also emerged, they said.
Aside from the ones killed in Homs, one civilian died when security forces opened fire on a funeral procession in the Daraa region, another center of protests against Assad’s rule south of the capital, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an emailed statement to AFP in Nicosia.
Syria’s opposition movement, boosted by the killing of Libya’s ousted dictator, called for fresh protests across the country in support of the Libyan people and against Assad’s regime.
The Friday prayers have become a lightning rod for anti-regime rallies, with thousands pouring out of mosques across the country each week to join in despite the strong likelihood of brutal action by the security forces.
Assad has been faced with a popular revolt since March 15, which has been harshly repressed, resulting in the deaths of more than 3,000 people, mostly civilians, according to the United Nations.
“Your turn has come Doctor (Assad),” protesters wrote on their Facebook page, Syrian Revolution 2011.
“Give whatever delay you want, our revolution will vanquish, we will continue to call with all our voice to bring down the regime and to tell the world that the Syrian people will now surrender,” it added.
Protesters carried signs that read, “We congratulate Libyan rebels for the victory.”
Dozens also were seen marching in the Damascus suburb of Douma, chanting slogans calling on Assad to resign.
Activists and residents said Syrian authorities have stepped up security in several cities and towns including the Damascus suburbs and Talbiseh near Homs.
“(There is an) unprecedented presence of security today with snipers on rooftops and roadblocks inside the suburb,” an activist in Damascus suburb of Saqba said.
Demonstrations also broke out in the ethnically Kurdish regions of Qamishli, Derbaseyeh, Malikiya and Amouda.
In the town of Houla northwest of Homs, a crowd of several thousands held shoulders and waved old Syrian flags dating to before Assad’s Baath party took power in a coup 48 years ago.
“Doctor (Assad), you are next!” read banners carried by the villagers, according to live video footage.
Demonstrations also flared in Homs, the provincial capital 140 km (85 miles) north of Damascus, where three members of one family were also shot dead at an army roadblock in Bab Sbaa district on their way to prayers, local activists said.
Syrian authorities say they are fighting “armed terrorist groups” in Homs who have been killing civilians, prominent figures and troops. The authorities have banned most foreign media, making verification of events on the ground difficult.
Authorities say at least 1,100 police and soldiers have been killed. The United Nations says Assad's crackdown has killed 3,000 people, including 187 children.
Assad has responded to the protest groundswell with promises of reforms which the opposition describes as hollow because he has also sent troops and tanks into cities and towns to crush the unrest.
But protests have persisted, although in reduced numbers, with several thousand soldiers from the mainly Sunni Muslim ranks now challenging his rule.
Several officers have recently announced their defection, although most deserters have been Sunni conscripts who usually man roadblocks and form the outer layer of military and secret police rings around restless cities and towns.
The officer corps of Syria’s army is composed mainly of members of Assad’s minority Alawite community.