Syrian security forces killed at least three protesters in a Damascus suburb on Friday, witnesses said, as thousands turned out in pro-democracy marches despite a reform gesture by President Bashar al-Assad.
Activists said Syrians took to the streets after Friday prayers in the capital Damascus, Banias on the coast, Latakia port and the southern city of Deraa, where the unprecedented protests challenging Assad's 11 years in power began in March.
Witnesses in the Damascus suburb of Douma said the three killed were among at least 2,000 people who chanted "Freedom. Freedom. One, one, one. The Syrian people are one," when police opened fire to disperse them from Municipality Square.
An official source said via state news agency SANA "armed groups" had positioned themselves on rooftops and opened fire on citizens and security forces gathered in Douma, killing and wounding dozens.
SANA said a group had also opened fire on a gathering in the Bayyada district of the western city of Homs, killing a girl, adding soldiers had also come under fire in Deraa.
In his first public appearance since the demonstrations began, Assad declined on Wednesday to spell out any reforms, especially the lifting of a 48-year-old emergency law that has been used to stifle opposition and justify arbitrary arrests.
"Thousands gathered today in Deraa, spontaneously, after Friday prayers in Deraa from all the mosques, rejecting the President's speech," said political activist Abu Hazem, who spoke to Al Arabiya television from Deraa.
"There is a heavy security cordon all around the city of Deraa ... blocking all entry points into the city," he said.
Assad, who became president after his father Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, had predicted the popular revolts seen in Tunisia and Egypt would not spread to Syria, saying the ruling hierarchy was "very closely linked to the beliefs of the people."
But for the last two weeks thousands of Syrians have turned out demanding greater freedoms in the tightly controlled Arab state, posing the gravest challenge to almost 50 years of monolithic Baath Party rule.
More than 60 people have been killed in the unrest, which could have wider repercussions since Syria has an anti-Israel alliance with Iran and supports militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.
Syria acknowledges 'gatherings'
SANA news agency acknowledged for the first time on Friday that worshippers in Deraa and Latakia, scene of protests and deadly clashes last week, had gathered after Friday prayers to call for accelerated reforms.
It had earlier reported calm across the country, adding there had been peaceful calls for reform and several gatherings supporting "national unity and ... stability."
"A number of worshippers left some mosques in the cities of Deraa and Latakia, chanting slogans in honor of the martyr and calling for speeding up measures for reform ... There were no clashes between worshippers and security forces in these gatherings," it said.
A witness told Reuters security forces and Assad loyalists attacked about 200 worshippers with batons as they marched outside the Refaie mosque in the Kfar Sousseh district of Damascus, chanting slogans in support of the Deraa protesters.
At least six protesters were arrested, the witness told Reuters by telephone from the mosque complex.
Online democracy activists had called for protests across Syria on Friday, billed as "Day of Martyrs," after Assad gave no clear commitment to meet demands for greater freedoms and said Syria was the target of a "big conspiracy."
Government-appointed preachers denounced "acts of turmoil" which they said had been "provoked from the outside and had targeted the nation's security."
On Thursday Assad ordered the creation of a panel that would draft anti-terrorism legislation to replace emergency law, a move critics have dismissed, saying they expect the new legislation will give the state much of the same powers.
Assad also ordered an investigation into the deaths of civilians and security forces in Deraa and in Latakia, where clashes that authorities blamed on "armed gangs" occurred last week, killing 12 people, according to officials.
The Syrian News Agency earlier said security forces had arrested two armed groups that opened fire and attacked citizens in a Damascus suburb.
Assad also formed a panel to "solve the problem of the 1962 census" in the eastern region of al-Hasaka. The census resulted in 150,000 Kurds who now live in Syria being denied nationality.
Americans releasedMeanwhile, two Americans detained at the outbreak of political unrest in Syria were released Friday after two weeks in custody, said a relative of one of them and American officials.
Both Americans — a Vermont college student studying Arabic in Syria and an engineer from Austin, Texas, who had been working in the country — were arrested while taking photographs of demonstrations on March 18, according to Syrian state media.
One of the Americans, 32-year-old engineer Mohammed Radwan, was accused of selling photos and video of demonstrations to a Colombian woman, according to the state-run news agency. On the day he was detained, Radwan had tweeted that he was at a mosque in Damascus where security forces were clashing with anti-government protesters, according to a cousin, Tarek Shalaby.
Syria's state news agency had said Radwan also confessed to visiting Israel. Syria is formally at war with the Jewish state, and visiting Israel is considered taboo. The accusation is sometimes used as a hint that they believe the person is a spy.
Shalaby said Friday his cousin was planning to fly to Cairo. Radwan, who is from Austin, Texas, also has Egyptian citizenship.
The other American, Pathik Root, is a 21-year-old student at Middlebury College from Ripton, Vermont.
He had been studying Arabic in Damascus as part of a program through Damascus University.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner confirmed the two Americans were released.