REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- Syrian security forces fired on anti-government protesters who took to the streets in large numbers after Friday prayers, opposition activists said, defying a nine-month crackdown against dissent.
As many as 17 people were reported killed in violence across the country, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists that organizes protests and disseminates information about the bloodshed. The official Syrian Arab News Agency denied that anyone was killed or injured and said there were also major demonstrations in support of President Bashar Assad.
It was not possible to verify the conflicting accounts because journalists are heavily restricted in Syria.The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed since the start of major protests in March. The government lays blame for the bloodshed on what it describes as armed terrorist gangs, incited and backed from abroad, and says most of the casualties have been security personnel.
The violence has increased in recent months as a growing number of military defectors and other opposition supporters have taken up arms against the security forces. But human rights activists say the protests remain mostly peaceful.
Amateur video on YouTube appeared to show large gatherings of clapping and chanting demonstrators in opposition strongholds in the provinces of Homs, Hama, Dara, Idlib and in suburbs of Damascus, the capital. The theme of the day’s protests was “The Arab League is Killing Us,” a reflection of mounting frustration over the regional group’s handling of the crisis.
Last month, the league suspended Syria's membership and approved sweeping sanctions after Assad's government repeatedly ignored deadlines to agree to monitors as required by a league-negotiated peace plan. But it’s unclear whether any of the measures have taken effect.
The league called off a meeting Saturday that was meant to discuss a proposal by Syria to sign a protocol for the observer mission, subject to conditions that include the lifting of regional sanctions. The country’s economy is already hurting from several rounds of sanctions imposed by the European Union, United States and former ally Turkey.
Meanwhile, members of the country’s most prominent opposition bloc, the Syrian National Council, gathered for a three-day congress in Tunisia, where the "Arab Spring" began.
"The goal is to invest our struggle with more force and energy to stop the killings that the criminal regime does not cease to carry out," council leader Burhan Ghalioun told the Associated Press.
The council, launched in October in Istanbul, Turkey, has struggled to bring together Syria’s highly fragmented opposition and has been accused of being out of touch with protesters inside the country.
Syria’s former ambassador to Sweden, Mohammed Bassam Imadi, announced Thursday the formation of another opposition group, which he said was working to unite activists in Syria. Addressing a news conference in Istanbul, Imadi said the Alliance of Revolutionary Forces in Syria would work with the Syrian National Council to overthrow Assad’s government.
The Syrian foreign ministry responded by saying that Imadi was dismissed last year for “deceit, fraud, trickery,” according to SANA.
-- Alexandra Zavis
Video: Amateur video purporting to show an anti government demonstration Friday in Bab Amro, a neighborhood in the central Syrian city of Homs. The authenticity of the video could not be independently verified. Credit: YouTube