Image: Anti-government protesters taking part in a demonstration in Banias in northeastern Syria
-  /  AFP - Getty Images
A picture taken by a mobile phone shows Syrian anti-government protesters taking part in a demonstration in Banias in northeastern Syria Friday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 4/22/2011 6:42:05 PM ET 2011-04-22T22:42:05

Syrian security forces shot dead dozens of protesters on Friday, rights activists said, the bloodiest day in a month of escalating demonstrations against the rule of President Bashar Assad.

Activists coordinating demonstrations said 88 civilians were killed. The Local Coordination Committees sent Reuters a list with names of 88 people classified by region that the group said were killed in areas stretching from the port city of Latakia to Homs, Hama, Damascus and the southern village of Izra'a. 

Protesters flooded into the streets after Muslim prayers in at least nine major areas across the country, a sign that Assad's attempts to quell the monthlong protests with a deadly crackdown and promises of reform have all but failed.

"Bullets started flying over our heads like heavy rain," said one witness in Izraa, a southern village in Daraa province, the same region where the uprising kicked off in mid-March.

Follow the latest developments on breakingnews.com

The protest movement has been the gravest challenge against the autocratic regime led by Assad, who inherited power from his father 11 years ago in one of the most rigidly controlled countries in the Middle East.

In the southern province of Daraa, witnesses told the AP that at least 10 people were killed when protesters marched in front of the mayor's office. They said an 11-year-old boy was among the dead. The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The White House called Syria's use of violence to quell protests "outrageous" and said it must "come to an end now."

"Instead of listening to their own people, President Assad is blaming outsiders while seeking Iranian assistance in repressing Syria's citizens through the same brutal tactics that have been used by his Iranian allies. We call on President Assad to change course now, and heed the calls of his own people," said the White House.

In earlier developments, Al-Jazeera's live blog of Friday's events in Syria rapidly became a list of places and numbers of people said to have been killed. It said it could not independently verify the reports.

"Our regime is the most brutal and scary in the Middle East," one of the protesters in Damascus said. "It has no values and can easily kill its own people. Rather than firing bullets they should open their eyes and their hearts to the Syrian people."

'God will have his revenge'
Another protester said an imam had said during prayers that "whoever does this killing, God will have his revenge upon."

In the city of Hama security forces fired at protesters to prevent them from reaching a ruling Baath Party headquarters, according to witness.

"We saw two snipers on the building. None of us had weapons. There are casualties, possibly two dead," the witness, a human rights campaigner who was at the protest, told Reuters.

In Douma, a Damascus suburb, security forces opened fire after some 40,000 people took to the streets. Witnesses said four people were wounded there.

"The people want the downfall of the regime!" shouted the protesters.

Friday's witness accounts could not be independently confirmed because Syria has expelled journalists and restricted access to trouble spots. Witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

White House officials urged the government to "cease and desist" its violence against protesters and called on Damascus to follow through on their promised reforms.

Meanwhile, in the first joint statement since the protests broke out, activists coordinating the mass demonstrations demanded Friday the abolition of Baath Party monopoly on power and the establishment of a democratic political system.

"All prisoners of conscience must be freed. The existing security apparatus has to be dismantled and replaced by one with specific jurisdiction and which operates according to law," they said in the statement, which was sent to Reuters.

The protest movement has crossed a significant threshold in recent days, with increasing numbers now seeking the downfall of the regime, not just reforms.

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The security crackdown has only emboldened protesters, who are enraged over the deaths of more than 200 people over five weeks.

Series of concessions
Activists promised that Friday's protests will be the biggest rallies yet against the regime led by Assad, who inherited power from his father 11 years ago in one of the most authoritarian countries in the Middle East.

The president has been trying to defuse the protests by launching a bloody crackdown along with a series of concessions, most recently lifting emergency laws that gave authorities almost boundless powers of surveillance and arrest.

He also has fulfilled a decades-old demand by granting citizenship to thousands among Syria's long-ostracized Kurdish minority, fired local officials, released detainees and formed a new government.

But many protesters said the concessions have come too late — and that Assad does not deserve the credit.

"The state of emergency was brought down, not lifted," prominent Syrian activist Suhair Atassi, who has been arrested several times in the past, wrote on her Twitter page.

"It is a victory as a result of demonstrations, protests and the blood of martyrs who called for Syria's freedom," she added.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Dozens killed in deadliest day of Syrian uprisings

  1. Closed captioning of: Dozens killed in deadliest day of Syrian uprisings

    >>> good evening. this uprisings, the citizen revolutions we have been covering from the middle east over to north africa have been popping up like thunderstorms. usually it's a slow build then an explosion of violence and then a real test of the government versus the newly empowered citizens. now it's syria . it's bubbled up there before riceantly and now it's happening again. and the government policy seems to be crack down at all costs. today, troops there fired on protesters, killing dozens of them. syria 's ruler, assad took power from his father and doesn't intend to give it up without a fight. andrea mitchell here with us in our studios. the story continues to change.

    >> it does. it's erupting as we speak. tonight, syria exploded with the government firing at protesters and tens of thousands taking to the streets. as many as 75 people or more are dead. there's no way to track that toll because syria is blocking journalists' access. it was the deadliest days since protests erupted months ago. crowds chanted "overthrow the regime" in the face of a brutal crackdown of a government still refusing to make good on a promise to make good. one of the horrifying images, a young boy apparently shot in the head. emboldened protesters demolished a statue of the founder. the father of the current president --

    >> the security forces are shooting randomly.

    >> the ruler ameen, one of the few journalists recording from syria said demonstrators didn't provoke the attacks.

    >> they tell us there were very peaceful protests and there was no reason for the government to use this much deadly power.

    >> they're relying on social networks to reach each other. a facebook page, a twitter page, and tweets crying for help.

    >> it's like the people of syria are learning how not to be afraid. if this keeps mushrooming, he could be pushed from offense.

    >> tonight, president obama issued a statement condemning the use of force by ssyria' government and said the force must end now, but the u.s. isn't going to intervene. unlike gadhafi, serious dictator still has the support of his arab neighborhoods. that's a big difference.

    >> always tough to us to get in there and cover stories, but it looks like here we go again. thajs.

Explainer: Syria: Land of unrest

  • Bassem Tellawi  /  AP
    Pro-Syrian President Bashar Assad protester waves a Syrian flag as she looks to the crowd in Damascus, Syria, on Tuesday.

    Syrian President Bashar Assad is now facing down the most serious threat to his family's four decades of authoritarian rule in this predominantly Sunni country, which is ruled by minority Alawites.

    In latest developments, Syria's government approved lifting the country's nearly 50-year-old state of emergency to meet a key demand of anti-government protesters, but also issued a stern warning to demonstrators to call off their challenges to Assad's hard-line rule.

    Scores have been killed in towns across the nation as demonstrations have spread, prompting Assad to send the army out on the streets.

    Assad has blamed "conspirators" for an extraordinary wave of dissent against his rule.

    "Syria stands at a crossroads," said Aktham Nuaisse, a leading human rights activist.
    Following are some key issues and facts about Syria.

    (Sources: Reuters, The Associated Press, World Bank, State Department, CIA, www.trust.org)

  • Timeline

    msnbc.com

    Syria has been under emergency law since the Baath Party took power in 1963 and banned all opposition. Here's a timeline of events since the protests started earlier this month.

    April 19
    The government passed a law lifting emergency rule, enforced since the Baath Party took power in 1963 and banned all opposition.

    March 16
    Security forces break up a silent gathering in Marjeh square in Damascus of about 150 protesters who held up pictures of imprisoned relatives and friends.

    The next day human rights group Amnesty International condemns the violent crackdown by security forces. Witnesses told the rights group at least 30 people were arrested.

    March 18
    Security forces kill three protesters in Deraa, residents say, in the most violent response to protests against Syria's ruling elite. The demonstrators were taking part in a peaceful protest demanding political freedoms and an end to corruption in Syria.

    Smaller protests take place in the central city of Homs and the coastal town of Banias.

    March 20
    Crowds set fire to the headquarters of the ruling Baath Party in Deraa, residents say. "No, no to emergency law. We are a people infatuated with freedom!" marchers chant.

    March 21
    In Deraa, hundreds of black-uniformed security forces line the streets but do not confront thousands of mourners marching at the funeral of a protester killed in Deraa. March 22 - Hundreds of people march in Deraa and Nawa, two southern Syrian towns, demanding freedom. It is the fifth straight day of demonstrations challenging the government.

    March 23
    Syrian forces kill six people in an attack on protesters in the Omari mosque complex in Deraa, and later open fire on hundreds of youths marching in solidarity.

    An official statement says later that President Bashar al-Assad has sacked Deraa regional governor Faisal Kalthoum.

    March 24
    Assad orders the formation of a committee to raise living standards and study scrapping the emergency law in place in Syria for the last 48 years, his adviser says.

    March 25
    At least 200 people march in Damascus and there are reports of at least 23 dead around the country, including for the first time in Damascus.

    — In Deraa, thousands march in funerals for some of the dead, chanting "Freedom." Witnesses say protesters haul down a statue of Assad's father, late president Hafez al-Assad, before security forces open fire from buildings.

    — Amnesty International says at least 55 people have been killed in Deraa in the last week.

    — Hundreds of people chant "freedom" in Hama, where in 1982 thousands of people were killed by Syrian security forces in a crackdown on Islamists.

    March 26
    In an attempt to placate protesters, Assad frees 260 prisoners, and 16 more the next day.

    — Twelve people are killed in protests in the town of Latakia. Assad deploys the army there the next day.

    March 27
    The army beefs up its presence in Deraa, focal point of bloody protests across the country.

    — Assad is expected to address the nation shortly, officials say.

    March 28
    Armed forces fire into the air to disperse a pro-democracy protest in Deraa as the crowd chanted "We want dignity and freedom" and "No to emergency laws."

    — Amnesty cites unconfirmed reports as saying 37 more people had been killed since March 25 in protests in Damascus, Latakia, Deraa and elsewhere.

    March 29
    Government resigns. Assad appoints Naji al-Otari, head of the government that stepped down, as the new caretaker prime minister.

    — Thousands of Syrians hold pro-government rallies after two weeks of pro-democracy protests in which at least 60 people have died.

  • Nation glance

    Bassem Tellawi  /  AP
    A rally after Friday prayers outside the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria.

    Population: 22 million

    Ethnic groups: Mostly Arabs, with Kurd, Turk and Armenian minorities. Syria also hosts a large population of Palestinian refugees.

    Religion: Mainly Sunni Muslim, but also Alawites, Shia and Ismailites, and minority Christian denominations.

    Capital: Damascus.

    Language: Arabic is the official language. Minority groups also speak their own languages.

    Geography: Syria borders Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan and Israel to the south and Lebanon and the Mediterranean to the west.

  • Economy

    Image: Pro-Syrian President Bashar Assad protesters
    Hussein Malla  /  AP
    Pro-Syrian President Bashar Assad protesters outside a taxi widow car in Damascus, Syria.

    Syria had taken measures to lift restrictions on business after four decades of failed Soviet-style economic policies and hoped to attract $44 billion, or 83 percent of its GDP, in private investment over the next five years.

    U.S. sanctions imposed in 2004 over Syria's role in Iraq and its backing for Hezbollah and Hamas have curbed Western investment. Together with a drought in eastern Syria, the sanctions have made the task of raising living standards and finding jobs for the fast growing population even harder.

    Syria's economy will grow by 6 to 7 percent in 2011, up from expected growth of 5 to 6 percent in 2010, according to the central bank Governor Adeeb Mayaleh.

  • Relations

    The unrest in Syria, a strategically important country, could have implications well beyond its borders given its role as Iran's top Arab ally and as a front line state against Israel.

    Syria has long been viewed by the U.S. as a potentially destabilizing force in the Middle East. An ally of Iran and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, it has also provided a home for some radical Palestinian groups.

    But the country has been trying to emerge from years of international isolation. The U.S. recently reached out to Syria in the hopes of drawing it away from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas — although the effort has not yielded much.

    Israel
    Even though Israel and Syria are sworn enemies, many in Israel are fearful that a collapse of Assad's regime might imperil decades of quiet along the shared border.

    "That has been the working assumption in Israel for years: Better the devil you know than the devil you don't," said Eyal Zisser, director of the Middle East Studies department at Tel Aviv University. "It was a regime that had really scrupulously maintained the quiet. And who knows what will happen now — Islamic terror, al-Qaida, chaos?"

Data: Young and restless: Demographics fuel Mideast protests

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