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5 killed as thousands protest in Syria despite tight security, checkpoints
KNAYSEH, Lebanon (AP) ' Firing bullets and tear gas, Syrian security forces killed at least five people Friday as tens of thousands of anti-government protesters defied a massive security crackdown and flooded the streets of Damascus and other cities, activists said.
Protesters held banners that read "Enough Killing!" and accused the Syrian regime of trying to terrify people into submission by stirring up sectarian strife. In the past week, a wave of sectarian bloodshed in the central city of Homs killed dozens, activists say.
"They are trying to turn the conflict into a sectarian one, and we insist that it is not," a protester told The Associated Press by telephone from the central city of Hama, asking that his name not be used out of fear for his personal safety.
The uprising has grown steadily over more than four months, posing the most serious threat to the Assad family's four-decade rule. Last Friday saw the largest crowds yet, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets across the country.
Syrian security forces killed 32 people last Friday, half of them in the capital, activists said. In an apparent effort to avoid a repeat of that, security forces deployed heavily in Damascus as early as dawn Friday, pulling people from their homes and setting up checkpoints.
Still, activists said, thousands of people protested in the Midan, al-Mleiha and Hajar al-Aswad districts of the capital. Soldiers and security forces fanned out in the Qaboun and Rukneddine neighborhoods.
"They are surrounding Qaboun from all sides and they've cut off mobile and land lines," an activist there told The Associated Press, asking for anonymity out of fear for his own safety.
Tens of thousands were in the streets in the northern Idlib province, in eastern Syria's Deir ez-Zour region and in southern Syria.
Police also used batons and tear gas to disperse protesters in several places, including the predominantly Kurdish city of Qamishli, where several were reported wounded.
Activists said security forces killed at least five people Friday.
The dead included a protester in Damascus, one in the northern city of Idlib, one who died by sniper fire in Homs and a person stabbed by a pro-regime gunmen in the northeastern city of Aleppo, said Omar Idilbi, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees, which help organize and document the protests.
A protester who was wounded earlier this month in Hama also died of his injuries Friday.
The London-based Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the deaths.
Over the past week, the military also has launched a massive crackdown in Homs, the city in central Syria at the heart of the uprising. Homs, which is about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from Damascus, has seen some of the most intense violence as the regime tries to stamp out the revolt.
On Friday, thousands of people took to the streets in Homs but security forces held their fire, a witness said. The crowds were smaller than last week, he said, and residents set up stone barricades and closed off roads with garbage containers to keep more security forces out.
Idilbi said he received the names of four people killed there Thursday night.
Another activist confirmed the deaths, but said there were three victims, including a teenager.
France condemned the crackdown in Homs, accusing the Syrian army of a reign of terror.
A Foreign Ministry statement said "terror reigns in Homs, surrounded by the Syrian army."
The ministry says "the army and other security forces will have to account for their actions."
Human rights groups say more than 1,600 people have been killed in President Bashar Assad's crackdown, but authorities blame the unrest on gunmen and religious extremists.
The regime has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted coverage, making it nearly impossible to independently verify events on the ground or casualty figures from either side.
Karam reported from Beirut.
Bassem Mroue can be reached on http://twitter.com/bmroue and Zeina Karam on http://twitter.com/zkaram