At Least 23 Said Killed as Protesters in Syria Clash With Security Forces

Protesters clashed with police and government supporters throughout Syria on 'Friday of Dignity'; protesters have been reported dead in several cities.

Security forces and anti-government protesters clashed at various locations in Syria on Friday, leaving at least 23 dead, witnesses said.

Syrian security forces opened fire in protesters in the town of Sanamein, killing 20 people, a witness told Al Jazeera television on Friday.

"There are more than 20 martyrs… they [security forces] opened fire haphazardly, the witness said.

Sanamein is 50 kilometers north of Daraa, the hub of the protests that came to a head earlier this week after police detained more than a dozen schoolchildren for writing graffiti against the government.

Security forces killed an additional three people in Mauadamieh suburb of Damascus after protests, sealing off the district's residents.

An anti-government activist reported that an additional demonstrator was shot dead by security forces in the coastal city of Latakia, and another slain in the central city of Homs. He said several people had been hospitalized in Latakia, where more than 1,000 people marched in the streets after Friday prayers.

Clashes continued in the restive southern city of Daraa Friday after crowds set fire to a bronze statue of the country's late president, Hafez Assad, a resident told The Associated Press.

Heavy gunfire could be heard in the city center and witnesses reported several casualties, the resident said on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Earlier Friday in the south Syria city, thousands marched freely behind the coffins of protesters gunned down by President Bashar Assad's forces, a day after the president, scion of half a century of Baathist rule, offered to consider granting political freedoms.

"Freedom is ringing out!" chanted mourners for some of at least 37 people killed on Wednesday, when security agents broke up a pro-democracy encampment at a mosque in Daraa.

Despite a continued heavy security presence in Daraa, close to the Jordanian border, thousands of protesters were arriving in the city from nearby villages, offering support to a movement which has tried to emulate Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

In the southern city, before the Friday midday prayers which are the high point of social interaction in much of the Arab world, a procession of cars coursed through the streets honking horns and raising pictures of the president. There were also pro-Assad congregations in other parts of the city.

Minarets in Daraa echoed throughout the morning with the calls of imams to the faithful to attend funerals of some of the civilians killed, most of them when security forces fired on demonstrators in the mainly Sunni Muslim city on Wednesday.

Journalists who tried to enter Daraa's Old City - where most of the violence took place - were escorted out of town Friday by two security vehicles. "As you can see, everything is back to normal and it is over, an army major, standing in front of the ruling Baath party head office in Daraa, told journalists before they were led out of the city.

Daraa has been bolstered by solidarity of fellow countrymen as protests erupted throughout the country Friday after a Facebook page called Syrian Revolution called on people to gather on the "Friday of Dignity" after prayers, "in all mosques, in all provinces, in the biggest squares".

In Damascus, the Syrian capital some 200 people shouted chants in support of the people in the south on Friday -- "We sacrifice our blood, our soul, for you Daraa!" -- before plainclothes police and other security officers moved in to arrest them. Several hundred people yelled pro-government slogans nearby, close to Damascus's Old City.

People shouting in support of the Daraa protesters clashed with regime supporters outside the historic Umayyad mosque in the capital, hitting each other with leather belts.

Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, a resident claimed that more than 50,000 people were shouting slogans decrying presidential adviser Buthaina Shaaban, who promised Thursday that the government would consider a series of reforms in response to a week of unrest in Daraa.

A human rights activist, quoting witnesses, said thousands of people gathered in the town of Douma outside the capital, Damascus, pledging support for the people of Daraa. The activists asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.

Security forces dispersed the crowd by chasing them away, beating some with batons and detaining others, an activist said, asking that his name not be published for fear of reprisals by the government.

In the city of Aleppo, hundreds of worshippers came out of mosques shouting "with our lives, our souls, we sacrifice for you Bashar and Only God, Syria and Bashar!"

Residents in Homs said hundreds of people demonstrated in support of Daraa and demanded reforms, and an anti-government activist said that in the northern city of Raqqa, scores marched and several people were detained.

In the western city of Zabadani, near the border with Lebanon, several people were reportedly detained after protesting.

On Jan. 31, Assad had said there was no chance political upheavals then shaking Tunisia and Egypt would spread to Syria.

Assad, who has strengthened Syria's ties with Iran, has come under criticism for his handling of the protests. The United States described the shootings of protesters as "brutal".