Syrian security forces opened fire on demonstrations Friday in the capital Damascus and the coastal city of Latakia - the heartland the ruling elite - wounding at least five people as thousands took to the streets in several places across the country, witnesses said.
Other demonstrations were reported in the coastal city of Banias, the northern city of Raqqa and the northeastern city of Qamishli.
President Bashar Assad's regime has stepped up its deadly crackdown on protesters in recent days by unleashing the army along with snipers and tanks. On Friday, protesters came out in their thousands, defying the crackdown and using it as a rallying cry.
Assad has tried to crush the revolt - the gravest challenge to his family's 40-year ruling dynasty - and in the process has drawn international criticism and threats of sanctions from European countries and the United States.
A witness in Latakia said about 1,000 people turned out for an anti-government rally when plainclothes security agents with automatic rifles opened fire. He said he saw at least five people wounded. Like many witnesses contacted by The Associated Press, he asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisal.
Syrian state-run TV said one of its cameramen was injured in Latakia during an attack by an armed gang. The government has blamed the unrest on armed gangs - not true reform-seekers.
A witness in Daraa - the southern city at the center of the revolt - said residents were staying home Friday. They did not even venture out to mosques for Friday prayers because of snipers.
"We are in our houses but our hearts are in the mosques," the witness said.
In Damascus' central Midan neighborhood, witnesses said about 500 people marched chanting "God, Syria and freedom only!" in a heavy rain, but security forces opened fire with bullets and tear gas, scattering them. It was not clear if there were injuries.
The government had warned against holding any demonstrations Friday and placed large banners around the capital that read: "We urge the brother citizens to avoid going out of your homes on Friday for your own safety."
Syrian state television said the Interior Ministry has not approved any march, demonstration or sit-in and that such rallies seek only to harm Syria's security and stability.
Many of the protests were held in solidarity with more than 50 people killed in the last week alone in Daraa.
The Muslim Brotherhood urged Syrians to demonstrate Friday against Assad in the first time the outlawed group has openly encouraged the protests in Syria. The Brotherhood was crushed by Assad's father, Hafv, after staging an uprising against his regime in 1982.
"You were born free, so don't let a tyrant enslave you," said the statement, issued by the Brotherhood's exiled leadership.
Assad has said the protests - the gravest challenge to his family's 40-year ruling dynasty - are a foreign conspiracy carried out by extremist forces and armed thugs.
But he has acknowledged the need for reforms, offering overtures of change in recent weeks while brutally cracking down on demonstrations.
Last week, Syria's Cabinet abolished the state of emergency, in place for decades, and approved a new law allowing the right to stage peaceful protests with the permission of the Interior Ministry.
Separately, the United States and the Eujopean Union urged the UN Human Rights Council to investigate possible abuses in Syria and insist that Assad allow in foreign journalists and ease Internet restrictions. Diplomats from Nigeria and China, however, warned that any council action could be interpreted as meddling.
The U.S. and Western diplomats also plan to rally opposition to Syria's unopposed candidacy to join the 47-nation council.
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