Syrian security forces opened fire at several anti-government protests chanting against the Assad regime and calling for political freedom today.
Responding to calls for widespread protests in Syria for protests on “Good Friday”, to be held on the date Christians commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus, at least 15 protesters were killed by security forces, witnesses and activists told AFP in telephone interviews.
Protests erupted in the repressive state which has been ruled by the Baath party for decades. Reports of demonstrations came from the Mediterranean city of Banias to the eastern towns of Deir al-Zor and Qamishli.
At least eight people were killed in the town of Ezreh, in the southern province of Daraa, epicentre of the pro-reform and anti-regime protests that broke out in mid-March, sources told AFP.
Another six died in the northern Damascus suburb of Douma, the sources added.
Five others were wounded in Douma after security opened fire to disperse crowds, a human rights activist there said.
Forces fired live rounds at tens of thousands of demonstrators in the central protest hub of Homs, wounding at least two, an activist said.
More than 220 protesters have been killed since unrest broke out on March 18 in southern Syria, human rights groups say, including 21 protesters killed this week in Homs alone.
In southern protest centre Daraa, where 100 protesters were killed on March 2 making it one of the hotbeds fomenting anger against the regime, several thousand took to the streets.
The protesters called for the fall of Assad's regime and demanded the dissolution of his feared security services, human rights activists said.
"Around seven to ten thousand people emerged from mosques and marched to the Saraya Square [ the governor's headquarters] in Daraa," said a witness, contacted by telephone.
One person was killed in Hirak in the Daraa region.
Elsewhere, "around ten thousand people demonstrated for liberty and for reforms and the unity" of Banias, a religious leader in the north-western city told AFP by telephone.
In the city of Hama, where Assad's father ruthlessly crushed an armed Islamist uprising nearly 30 years ago, a witness said security forces opened fire to prevent protesters reaching the headquarters of the Baath.
"We saw two snipers on the building. None of us had weapons. There are casualties, possibly two dead," said the witness.
Thousands of protesters also swarmed the streets of the mainly Kurdish north-eastern city of Qamishli."Freedom, freedom," and "God, Syria, freedom, that's all," the protesters, who witnesses said numbered around six thousand, chanted as they carried a giant Syrian flag.
The demonstrations came after a call by a Facebook group called “The Syrian Revolution 2011” for rallies including both the Christians and Muslim s on Good Friday.
Friday is also the Muslim day of rest when the biggest demonstrations across Syria are staged after weekly prayers.
The mass protests are provocative as they take place after Assad had announced the removal of a state of emergency which has been in place for nearly 50 years.
In addition to this, a bill was passed to regulate demonstration activity and on the security side, state security calls were abolished.
This, however, failed to placate the protesters, whose anger was aggravated by at least 220 dead by regime fire according to human rights groups, and who seemed emboldened rather than calmed by Assad’s concessions.
"Lifting the emergency rule and the abolition of the state security court are positive steps but over the next few days we will monitor closely the security forces to see if they violate the law," said Rami Abdul Rahman of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
"Now we expect the release of thousands of people who have been sentenced" by the state security court, he said.
Beirut-based Syrian cyber-activist Malath Aumran, a key player behind the protests, said ending emergency rule will "change nothing" in Syria, where the people now wanted a change of regime.
"From the first day people took to the streets with one goal in mind, the fall of the regime," Aumran told AFP, reached by telephone from Nicosia.
Amnesty International urged Syrian authorities not to suppress what it termed the "Great Friday" protests.
"It is imperative that these demonstrations are policed sensibly, sensitively and in accordance with international law to avoid further bloodshed on Syria's streets," it said.
Human Rights Watch urged the authorities "to permit Syrians to exercise their right to peaceful assembly" on Friday.
"President al-Assad has the opportunity to prove his intentions by allowing (Friday's) protests to proceed without violent repression."
In the first joint statement since the protests broke out, activists coordinating the mass demonstrations demanded on Friday the abolition of Baath Party monopoly on power and the establishment of a democratic political system.
"All prisoners of conscience must be freed. The existing security apparatus has to be dismantled and replaced by one with with specific jurisdiction and which operates according to law," they said in the statement, which was sent to Reuters.
The authorities have blamed armed groups, infiltrators and Sunni Muslim militant organisations for provoking violence at demonstrations by firing on civilians and security forces.