BEIRUT: Syrian security forces opened fire on a demonstration Friday in the coastal city of Latakia — the heartland of the ruling elite — wounding at least five people as thousands took to the streets in several places across the country, witnesses said.
President Bashar Assad’s regime has stepped up its deadly crackdown on protesters in recent days by unleashing the army along with snipers and tanks. On Friday, protesters came out in their thousands, defying the crackdown and using it as a rallying cry.
A witness in Latakia said about 1,000 people turned out for an anti-government rally when plainclothes security agents with automatic rifles opened fire. He said he saw at least five people wounded. Like many witnesses contacted by The Associated Press, he asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisal.
Other demonstrations were reported in Banias and in the northeastern city of Qamishli.
The government had warned against holding any demonstrations Friday.
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.
Many of the protests were held in solidarity with more than 50 people killed in the last week alone in Daraa, a southern city at the center of the revolt. Daraa has been under military siege since Monday, when thousands of soldiers stormed in backed by tanks and snipers.
A devastating picture was emerging from the city — which is largely sealed off, without electricity and telephones — as residents flee to neighboring countries.
At the Jordanian side of the Syrian border, several Daraa residents who had just crossed over said there is blood on the streets of the city.
"Gunfire is heard across the city all the time," one man said, asking that his name not be used for fear of retribution. "People are getting killed in the streets by snipers if they leave their homes."
An AP reporter at the border heard gunfire and saw smoke rising from different areas just across the frontier. Residents said the gunfire has been constant for three weeks.
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.
The Muslim Brotherhood urged Syrians to demonstrate Friday against Assad in 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, in place for decades, 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.
"The people want the downfall of the regime," said an activist in the coastal city of Banias — echoing the cries heard during the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions.
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 over following Assad’s orders to crack down on protesters in Daraa, 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.
AP writers Jamal Halaby at the Jordanian-Syrian border, Diaa Hadid in Cairo and Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut contributed to this report.