Syria funeral - Reuters - March 20, 2011
A crowd chants anti-regime slogans during a funeral procession for a protester killed in Dara, south Syria in this still image taken from video March 20, 2011. Photo by Reuters
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The White House on Friday condemned Syria's violent crackdown on anti-government protesters and urged Syrian President Bashar Assad to promptly take concrete steps toward meaningful reform.

"The Syrian government has an important opportunity to be responsive to the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people," Jay Carney, spokesman for U.S. President Barack Obama, said in a statement. "Violence is not the answer to the grievances of the Syrian people."

Assad announced limited steps toward reform this week, saying he was forming committees to look into civilian deaths and the possibility of replacing Syria's despised emergency laws. At least 75 people have been killed in two weeks of demonstrations, including three on Friday.

Al Arabiya reported the number of those killed across Syria on Friday as 10, saying that protesters had been killed in Daraa, Latakia, Homs, Kamishli, and in Damascus.

"We condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens demonstrating in Syria, and applaud the courage and dignity of the Syrian people," Carney's statement continued. "President Bashar al-Assad has a responsibility to promptly take concrete steps and actions that deliver on his promises and advance a meaningful reform agenda."

The extraordinary wave of demonstrations has proved the most serious challenge yet to a four-decade ruling dynasty by the Assad family - one of the most rigid and authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.

The government blamed Friday's violence on armed gangs in a rare acknowledgment of the violence.

Activists dubbed Friday a Day of Martyrs and called for mass demonstrations to honor more than 70 people killed since the protests began in mid-March. An activist in Douma, just outside the capital, said he and hundreds of others came under attack by security forces as they left the town's Grand Mosque, chanting slogans for freedom.

He said the troops hit people with clubs and threw stones before firing tear gas and finally live ammunition.

"I saw three people dead and six wounded," the activist said. Douma's streets are now totally empty except for security forces of whom some are in plainclothes.

Other protests took place in the southern city of Daraa, which has become the epicenter for the protests.

Several eyewitnesses told The Associated Press by telephone that up to 5,000 people were marching in Daraa, shouting "We want freedom!" and "The blood of martyrs is not cheap!"

The account could not be independently confirmed because the media are under heavy restrictions in Syria. On Friday, two Associated Press journalists were ordered to leave the country with less than one hour's notice.

The witnesses who spoke to the AP asked that their names not be published for fear of reprisals.

For the first time Friday, the government acknowledged there were pro-reform gatherings in cities including Daraa and Latakia, but said there was no friction between security forces and protesters.

President Bashar Assad dashed expectations he would announce sweeping changes this week and instead announced that he would form committees to look into civilian deaths and the possibility of replacing decades-old emergency laws.

He also blamed the popular fury that has gripped Syria on a foreign conspiracy - enraging protesters who had expected Assad to announce reforms.

Scores of plainclothes security agents deployed Friday in Damascus near the historic Umayyad mosque, where only last week, pro- and anti-government crowds clashed, hitting each other with leather belts.

As people began leaving the mosque Friday, a crowd of at least 300 people carrying Syrian flags and pictures of Assad broke out into clapping and chants of "Allah, Syria, Bashar!" Security forces made no attempt to stop them.