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, Homs to the north of the capital, 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.
A photo distributed by one activist showed protesters pelting police forces with stones in Douma, which links Damascus with the northern countryside.
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.
"There is no confidence. President Assad talks about reform and does nothing," said Montaha al-Atrash, board member of the independent Syrian human rights organization Sawasiah.
SYRIA ACKNOWLEDGES "GATHERINGS"
In Deraa, thousands of people gathered at Serail Square, chanting slogans denouncing hints by Assad's to replace emergency law with anti-terrorism legislation and describing rich relatives of the president as "thieves."
Music played from loudspeakers, including the song "Where are the millions?" by Lebanese singer Julia Boutrous. Secret police and regular police forces kept their distance but the army maintained heavy presence around Deraa, including tanks. A Reuters witness saw two tanks positioned near Deraa.
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 past 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.
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. One man was injured in a protest in the Damascus suburb of Daraya.
Online democracy activists had called for protests across Syria on "Martyrs' Friday," 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.
Two American citizens who had been detained in Syria have been released, the U.S. State Department said on Friday, without giving more details.
Media operate in Syria under severe restrictions. Syria expelled Reuters' Damascus correspondent last week. One foreign journalist was released by authorities on Friday, three days after he had been detained, while a Syrian Reuters photographer remains missing since Monday. Two other foreign Reuters journalists were also expelled.