Anti-government protests in Syria - AP - March 23, 2011
Anti-Syrian government protesters flash V sign as they protest in the southern city of Daraa, Syria, Wednesday March 23, 2011. Photo by AP
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At least 22 protesters were killed in bloody clashes with Syria security forces on Friday witnesses said, as the unrest that has engulfed the country closed its third week.

Syria state TV reported that 19 policemen were killed in the fray as well, attacked by armed groups of demonstrators retaliating for security forces' brutal crackdowns over the past few weeks.

Syrian security forces killed 17 protesters in the southern city of Daraa on Friday when they fired at a demonstration against Baath Party rule, a hospital source and activist said. An additional two were reported dead in Homs, with another three killed by security forces in the city of Harsata.

"I saw pools of blood and three bodies in the street being picked up by relatives in the Mahatta area," a witness in Daraa said.

Protesters burned a Baath Party outpost in Daraa and smashed a statue of Basil Assad, President Bashar Assad's late brother.

Syrian security forces fired tear gas and live ammunition as thousands of protesters gathered in a tense southern city despite overtures by Syria's president to end three weeks of unrest, witnesses said.

The state news agency SANA reported shooting in Daraa, but it said "vandals" had opened fire on mass gatherings, killing a policeman and an ambulance driver and wounding dozens of police and residents.

An eyewitness said the shooting started after thousands of people marched out of the mosque in Daraa, which has become the epicenter of the country's protest movement.

The sound of shooting could be heard through the telephone, but the witness said it was not clear whether security forces were shooting at the protesters or in the air.

Like most activists and witnesses who spoke to The Associated Press, he requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Another activist in touch with protesters in the northeastern town of Amouda said a demonstration was starting there.

The reports could not be independently confirmed because Syria has restricted media access since the protests began three weeks ago. Human rights groups have said at least 100 people have been killed in the security crackdown.

Protest organizers have called on Syrians to take to the streets every Friday for the past three weeks, demanding reform in one of the most authoritarian nations in the Middle East. The protests have rattled the regime of President Bashar Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for nearly 40 years.

United States President Barack Obama condemned the deadly violence by Syrian security forces against anti-government protesters urging the Syrian government to refrain from any further violence.

 

"I call upon the Syrian authorities to refrain from any further violence against peaceful protestors," Obama said in a statement, adding "the arbitrary arrests, detention, and torture of prisoners that has been reported must end now, and the free flow of information must be permitted so that there can be independent verification of events on the ground."

 

"It is time for the Syrian government to stop repressing its citizens and to listen to the voices of the Syrian people calling for meaningful political and economic reforms," he said.