Image: Demonstrators in Damascus
Reuters
Demonstrators march through the streets after Friday prayers in the Hajar Al Asswad district in Damascus on Friday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 7/1/2011 10:50:32 PM ET 2011-07-02T02:50:32

Hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded cities around Syria on Friday in what activists described as the largest outpouring against the regime of President Bashar Assad and a powerful message of the opposition's resolve.

At least 24 people were killed in various clashes, activists said.

The rage — flaring in dozens of places at the same time — further strained the resources of Assad's security forces and military as they also try to choke off a refugee wave into Turkey.

The centerpiece of the latest protests — the central city of Hama — brings further complications for the government. Security forces moved outside Hama in early June after shootings that left 65 people dead, and now the streets appear fully under the sway of the opposition with at least 200,000 people gathering Friday in the central square, activists said.

Crowd estimates and other details cannot be independently verified. The Syrian government has banned most foreign media from the country and restricted coverage.

But the protest surge Friday appeared to dwarf recent weeks as Assad's forces tried to wear down the opposition with relentless force. Syrian rights groups say more than 1,400 people have been killed, most of them unarmed protesters, since mid-March.

The regime disputes the toll, blaming "armed thugs" and foreign conspirators for the unrest that has posed the most serious challenge to the Assad family's 40-year ruling dynasty in Syria.

Encouraged by the widening protests, prominent opposition figures plan to convene a 'national salvation' conference in Damascus on July 16 to reach a broad based blueprint for solving Syria's political crisis.

"In light of the military solution chosen by the regime to end the revolution, the conference aims to reach a consensus guided by the popular protest movement for a transitional period and a national salvation government that lays the foundation for a new constitution and free elections," said a statement by the organisers, which was sent to Reuters.

The statement was signed by 50 figures, including Kurdish leader Mishaal al-Tammo, former judge Haitham al-Maleh, Nawaf al-Bashir, a tribal leader from the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, economist Aref Dalila, a fierce critic of the Assad's family's involvement in business and Walid al-Bunni, a physician who played a major role in a movement for democracy crushed by Assad ten years ago known as Damascus Spring.

In Hama, anti-government crowds defiantly staked their claim to the city — which carries important symbolism to the opposition. In 1982, Assad's late father, Hafez Assad, stormed the city to crush an uprising, leaving between 10,000 and 25,000 people dead, rights groups say.

Al Jazeera quoted an activist as saying at least 200,000 protesters were at the Hama rally, held in the central square around a giant clock tower.

Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso put the Hama rally crowd at 300,000 and told The Associated Press that there was no sign of security forces, which remained outside the city and appeared unwilling to risk major bloodshed again.

The absence of security forces in Hama also could reflect fatigue in Assad's core troops and the need to concentrate on what officials consider strategic fronts. Assad's elite forces have waged nearly nonstop crackdowns around the country as new protest hotbeds emerged.

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Now, they are mobilized in difficult terrain along the Turkish border in efforts to clamp down on refugees fleeing across the border. The regime is deeply embarrassed by the exodus and also fears the camps could become opposition enclaves out of the government's reach.

"Syrian security forces are exhausted," said Osso. "There are demonstrations all over Syria and they cannot cover these areas."

Image: Pro-Assad protest in Syria
Ho  /  AP
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian supporters of President Bashar Assad carry a giant national flag during a protest in al-Qarya village, in the southwestern Suwayda province on Friday.

In Lithuania, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on Assad's regime to either begin a credible political reform process or "continue to see increasingly organized resistance."

"It doesn't appear that there's a coherent and consistent message coming from Syria," Clinton told a news conference. "We know what they have to do. They must begin a genuine transition to democracy and allowing one meeting of the opposition in Damascus is not sufficient action toward achieving that goal."

Osso said huge protest crowds moved into the streets after the Muslim noon prayers in places across the country, including the capital Damascus. Some carried red cards to copy the "send off" signal by soccer referees.

A video posted on the Local Coordination Committees' Facebook page showed dozens of people marching outside a mosque in Damascus' central neighborhood of Midan as they chanted "Bashar out, Syria is free."

Omar Idilbi, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees, which track the protests in Syria, said Friday's demonstrations were the largest since the uprising began in mid-March. He did not give a figure, but said there were gatherings in 172 different locations with numbers ranging from few hundreds to tens of thousands as in Hama.

Image: Protest in Kfar Nebel, Syria
Ho  /  AP
In this image made on a mobile phone and provided by Shaam News Network, anti-government protesters hold banners in Kfar Nebel village near the the province of Edlib, northwest Syria, on Friday.

A blog on Al Jazeera said a witness reported about 6,000 anti-government protesters filled streets in Hajjar al-Aswad, a poor neighborhood near the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus.

Activists — including Idilbi and the Local Coordination Committees — said at least 11 people were killed by security forces around the country, including five in the central city of Homs and two in Damascus.

"Bashar get out of our lives," read placards carried by thousands of Kurds who marched in the northeastern city of Amouda, according to a YouTube video taken by a resident.

In separate clashes, three people were killed during a military operation seeking to halt the flow of refugees heading across the border to Turkey, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the London-based director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

More than 10,000 Syrians have already taken shelter in refugee camps in Turkey to escape the violence.

State-run Syrian TV aired footage of pro-government demonstrators in different parts of the country carrying Syrian flags and posters of Assad. State TV said gunmen opened fire at police officers, killing a police officers and a civilian.

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Although Syria's northern border with Turkey, Syrian forces have been combing through villages and hinterlands hunting down soldiers who abandoned their weapons and trying to quell demonstrations.

An activist said some villagers have fled as Syrian soldiers neared.

"They are ghost towns," said the activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisals.

In the same area Friday, the activist said other villagers were marching toward the Roman-era city of Barah, where he said Syrian forces had encircled the town of some 20,000 people and positioned snipers on rooftops. Power and water supplies to the city were cut, the activist said.

Turkish officials said Friday 113 refugees have returned to Syria since Thursday and there were no new arrivals. They said the number of refugees still in Turkey is 10,497.

Msnbc.com staff and Reuters contributed to this report from The Associated Press.

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