BEIRUT: Thousands of people joined protests Friday in Syria calling for an end to President Bashar Assad’s regime, witnesses and activists said.
An activist in Damascus, the Syrian capital, said hundreds of people marched in the central neighborhood of Midan chanting, "The people want the downfall of the regime!" In the coastal town of Banias, witnesses said more than 5,000 people carrying olive branches and Syrian flags also were calling for regime change.
They were among several demonstrations and marches planned for Friday, the main day of protests in the Arab world, for what activists were calling a "Day of Defiance."
More than 565 civilians and 100 soldiers have been killed since an anti-regime uprising, inspired by revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, began in March, according to rights groups.
The activists said security forces set up checkpoints and closed some areas that experienced protests in recent weeks.
In the Damascus suburb of Douma, scene of intense protests over recent weeks, security forces cordoned off the area to prevent anyone from entering or leaving, a witness said.
A witness near Douma said he saw a train carrying about 15 army tanks heading north Thursday evening toward the central province of Homs, another site of recent violence.
In the southern city of Daraa, where the army announced the end to an 11-day military operation Thursday, residents said troops were still in the streets, causing some would-be demonstrators to be wary of taking part in a planned protest Friday.
"There’s a tank stationed at each corner in Daraa. There is no way people can hold a protest today," a resident said by telephone. "It means more killing. Daraa is taking a break. We don’t want to see more killing or face tank guns."
The activists spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said a medical team reached Daraa on Thursday with trucks carrying humanitarian goods and medical supplies. The ICRC’s head of delegation in Damascus, Marianne Gasser, said helping people in Daraa is a priority "because it is the city that has been hardest hit by the ongoing violence."
The ICRC had appealed to Syrian authorities earlier in the week to allow it to access to Daraa after being unable to reach the city previously while it was under siege by security forces.
President Bashar Assad is determined to crush the revolt that has now become the gravest challenge to his family’s 40-year dynasty. He has tried a combination of brute force, intimidation and promises of reform to quell the unrest, but his attempts have failed so far.
Security forces have repeatedly opened fire on protesters during rallies around the country in the past week and last Friday at least 65 people were killed, according to rights groups.
The mounting death toll — and the siege in Daraa — has only served to embolden protesters who are now demanding nothing less than the end of Assad’s regime. There also has been growing international condemnation of the government’s tactics.
Syria blames the unrest on a foreign conspiracy and "terrorist groups" that it says have taken advantage of protests.
The uprising in Syria was sparked by the arrest of teenagers who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall in Daraa. Protests spread quickly across the nation of some 23 million people.
Assad inherited power from his father in 2000. –Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.