At least three people are killed and scores injured during protests across the country
(Guardian UK News) - Security forces opened fire on demonstrators in Syria two days after President Bashar al-Assad delivered an uncompromising address aimed at restoring rigid order in a country that rarely witnesses dissent.
At least three people were killed and scores more injured as thousands protested across the nation on a day dubbed the "Friday of Martyrs".
The widespread presence of demonstrators on the streets of the country's towns and cities had been called for by organisers incensed by Assad's stiff address, which offered none of the concessions hoped for earlier in the week.
The southern city of Deraa was again at the vanguard of a nascent reform movement, which continues to be rallied through social media and by activists who have been galvanised by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
Security forces were seizing mobile phones, which had been used to film clashes, to decrease the risk of further incriminating images being transferred on the internet.
The new security crackdown had been widely expected by demonstrators in the wake of Assad's speech, which was seen as a clear message that continued dissent would not be tolerated.
Several officials from the ruling Ba'ath party had pointed to new committees being set up to explore lifting the state of emergency rule which has banned dissent or political opposition for 48 years. Assad was thought likely to announce the move, and other reforms, on Wednesday.
However, his address was instead calibrated to send a signal that he would not capitulate to a restive nation that has shown no defiance similar to the scenes of the past fortnight since an ill-fated Islamist uprising in 1982.
Assad sought to pin the blame for the unprecedented unrest in the country on a foreign plot.
On Friday, forces opened fire in two suburbs of Damascus: Douma, where a crowd of more than 1,000 people gathered, and Kafer Souseh, where protesters were attacked by loyalists and police as they attempted to leave al-Refai mosque after prayers.
In the Kurdish north-east, protests were reported in the border town of Qamischli as well as smaller settlements including Amouda, Tell Tamer and Ras al-Ayn. Until now, Kurdish leaders have refrained from taking to the streets for fear that the government would frame Syria's uprising as a Kurdish issue.
Protesters also took to the streets chanting "Freedom!" in Deraa, Latakia, Banias and Homs.
A witness in the Damascus area of Barzeh reported security forces breaking up a gathering there. "Worshippers shouted 'Freedom, freedom, freedom' until more than 500 security forces broke them up," he told the Guardian.
Observers said the numbers were uncertain but showed growing unrest. "The protesters were mainly in small groups but this is to be expected," said Wissam Tarif, a human rights researcher in Syria. "They are spreading all over the country. Each week different towns and cities are going out."
Razan Zeitoneh, a human rights activist in Damascus said: "The regime has made it clear that it will use violence to end this and it prepared for this with bus loads of security forces but still demonstrators went out."
The protests may be a sign that the regime's gamble on inducing fear has backfired. Much of Assad's domestic support has traditionally been linked to his image as a reformer.
The continued stand-off between the government and protesters has caused anxiety in Syria to rise. It has also provoked a spike in sectarian tensions, after the government suggested incitement between sects was a factor in the uprising.
However, Syria's unrest has no discernible sectarian overtones and protesters in Kafer Souseh chanted "The Syrian people are one". But activists said fear is growing among Assad's Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shia Islam. Eyewitnesses said in one predominantly Alawite neighbourhood of Damascus a checkpoint for entry area was in force.
In the wake of Assad's speech, several western residents have reported being harassed or questioned by groups of unidentified men and security forces. On Friday the US issued a travel advisory warning against all but essential travel to Syria and advised citizens in the country to consider leaving.
Two Reuters journalists remain in detention, but Mohamed Radwan, an Egyptian-American accused by the authorities of selling information abroad, was released.
Mosques have so far been the focus of Friday protests, but activists say they are rapidly developing online and offline networks to mobilise people elsewhere.