AMMAN, (Reuters) – Syrian forces shot dead three demonstrators in the central city of Homs on Friday, witnesses and activists said, as tens of thousands of protesters called on President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
Defying weeks of military crackdown, demonstrations broke out in Damascus suburbs, near the Lebanese border, in desert regions bordering Iraq and in northern Idlib province where tank assaults in hills near Turkey killed three people overnight, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“Bashar get out of our lives,” read placards carried by thousands of Kurds who marched in the north-eastern city of Amouda, according to a YouTube video taken by resident.
In the city of Hama and in Kurdish eastern areas, demonstrators carried red cards, witnesses and activists said, symbolising Assad’s “sending off.”
Authorities banned most international media from operating in Syria since the outbreak of the protests in March, making it difficult to verify reports from activists and authorities.
State television said gunmen had fired on security forces in Homs in several other towns, wounding two of them.
In the old Homs district of Bab Sbaa, a witness said several armoured vehicles deployed and soldiers fired at protesters from road blocks set up in main streets in the city of one million.
Another activist in Homs said the death toll could be higher, with troops surrounding a private hospital in Bab Sbaa and several wounded people rushed to another hospital on the outskirts of the city where security forces were not present.
ASSAD “RUNNING OUT OF TIME”
Protesters have taken to the streets for 14 weeks to protest against Assad in unrest which has claimed the lives of around 1,300 civilians, according to rights groups. Authorities say 500 police and soldiers have been killed by gunmen they also blame for most of the civilian deaths.
Alongside the military crackdown, Assad has promised a national dialogue on political reforms and on Monday gave a rare platform to opposition demands when authorities allowed a conference in Damascus attended by 150 intellectuals.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was “disheartened” by reports of continued violence near the Syrian border with Turkey. Monday’s meeting in Damascus, she said, was not enough on its own to address demands for reform.
“It is absolutely clear that the Syrian government is running out of time,” she said during a visit to Lithuania.
“They are either going to allow a serious political process that will include peaceful protests to take place throughout Syria and engage in a productive dialogue with members of the opposition and civil society, or they’re going to continue to see increasingly organized resistance.”
The deaths in Idlib overnight raised the death toll in the last two days to 14, according to rights groups and residents.
Around 100 people crossed over into Lebanon early on Friday, witnesses said. Thousands have fled to Lebanon during the three months of unrest, but many have returned and it is unclear how many remain in Lebanon.
Syrian television showed a pro-Assad demonstration of around 100 people in the northern city of Aleppo on Friday, and state media reported several other large gatherings on Thursday which they said expressed support for Assad’s proposed reforms.
The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on Assad and his top officials in response to the violent repression of the protests.
On Wednesday the U.S. Treasury Department said it was also imposing sanctions against Syria’s security forces for human rights abuses and against Iran for supporting them.
The Treasury named the four major branches of Syria’s security forces and said any assets they may have subject to U.S. jurisdiction will be frozen and that Americans are barred from any dealings with them.
Damascus and Tehran both deny Western accusations that Iran has supported the crackdown on Syrian protesters.