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Syrians sustain their protests, troops open fire

Thousands of protesters poured into the streets in towns and cities across Syria after Friday prayers to demand the end of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, in the latest sign that the government’s strategy of relying on overwhelming force to crush dissent is failing.

Activists dedicated this 10th consecutive Friday of protests to the army, dubbing the day “Guardians of the Homeland Friday” in an effort to woo the military to the demonstrators’ side. Protesters were told to take flowers and offer them to soldiers who sought to suppress the demonstrations. In many towns, protesters chanted, “The people and the army are one,” echoing the calls heard at protests in Egypt, where the army’s refusal to fire on demonstrators proved crucial to the outcome of the revolution.

Five demonstrators were reported killed in suburbs of the capital, Damascus, when troops opened fire, according to Wissam Tarif of the human rights monitoring group Insan. It was not clear, however, whether army troops, police or the shadowy “shabiha” — armed irregulars loyal to Assad’s government — were responsible.

In addition, four people were killed early Saturday during an overnight demonstration in the town of Dael, bringing the day’s toll to nine, significantly fewer than the 69 killed the previous Friday. More than 500 people were detained around the country, Tarif said.

The lower death toll suggested the government is attempting to curtail the violence deployed against the persistent protest movement, as international pressure mounts on Assad to implement reforms or step down.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy joined President Obama on Friday in calling for Assad to reform or resign, a major blow for a regime that had cultivated ties with France in recent years to end a long period of international isolation.

The regime has not, however, made any meaningful moves toward reforms, leaving the country at a potentially destabilizing impasse.

The protest movement, which began in March with modest demands for reform, has long since moved on, and now demonstrators are insisting on the outright fall of the Assad regime. They have also refused to negotiate until the government pulls back the soldiers and tanks deployed in the streets of most protest flash points.

The protesters have failed to muster the numbers that brought down the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year, and despite their efforts, there has been no indication that the army would be willing to break ranks with the regime.

Yet the breadth of the discontent is such that it cannot be ignored. There were demonstrations Friday in dozens of key locations, including the central cities of Hama and Homs, the port city of Latakia, Deir al-Zour to the east and Idlib and Suwayda in the south.

In the far eastern town of Abu Kamal, on the Iraqi border, demonstrators burned pictures of the Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah, after he gave a speech earlier in the week urging his followers to support Assad. For the first time in weeks, there was a demonstration in Daraa, the southwestern town where the protest movement first gathered momentum and which bore the brunt of the government’s wrath after tanks were sent to crush it.

There were also reports of several protests within Damascus, the capital, whose citizens have so far not participated in demonstrations on a significant scale. A video posted on YouTube showed the biggest protest yet in the central Damascus neighborhood of Midan, where hundreds of people marched through the streets chanting, “The people want to topple the regime.”

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.



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