Huge protests grip Syria; 12 killed in clashes

Associated Press
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian supporters of President Bashar Assad carry a giant national flag during a protest in al-Qarya village, in the southwestern Suwayda province, Syria, Friday, July 1, 2011. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets throughout Syria on Friday, including the capital and the major city of Aleppo, chanting for the downfall of President Bashar Assad's regime as government troops killed three more people in the northwest during a military siege, activists said. (AP Photo/SANA) EDITORIAL USE ONLY
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BEIRUT (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded cities around Syria on Friday in one of the largest outpourings against the regime of President Bashar Assad since the uprisings began more than three months ago. At least 12 people were killed in various clashes, activists said.

The demonstrations underscored the resilience of the protesters despite Assad's relentless crackdowns. Syrian rights groups say more than 1,400 people have been killed, most of them unarmed protesters, since mid-March.

The regime disputes the toll, blaming "armed thugs" and foreign conspirators for the unrest that has posed the most serious challenge to the Assad family's 40-year ruling dynasty in Syria.

Syria-based rights activist Mustafa Osso said huge protest crowds moved into the streets after noon prayers in places across the country, including the capital Damascus. Among the largest rallies was in the central city of Hama, where about 200,000 people went out in the streets, said Omar Idilbi, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees, which track the protests in Syria.

But state-run Syrian TV aired footage of pro-government demonstrators in different part of the country carrying Syrian flags and posters of Assad.

Idilbi said security forces killed at least three people in another central city, Homs, after opening fire. State TV said gunmen opened fire at police officers, wounding one and killing a civilian.

The Local Coordination Committees later issued a statement saying six more protesters were shot dead around the country, including two in Damascus. Idilbi also said that apparent regime supporters in civilian clothes stabbed protesters, wounding at least 12 in Homs.

In separate clashes, three people were killed during a military operation seeking to choke off the flow of refugees heading across the border to Turkey, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the London-based director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

More than 10,000 Syrians have already taken shelter in refugee camps in Turkey to escape the violence.

The Syrian government has banned most foreign media from the country and restricted coverage, making it difficult to get independent confirmation of events on the ground.

A video posted on the Local Coordination Committees' Facebook page showed dozens of people marching outside a mosque in Damascus' central neighborhood of Midan as they chanted "Bashar out, Syria is free."

The refugees have been a source of deep embarrassment to Damascus, one of the most tightly controlled regimes in the Middle East.

Turkish officials said Friday 113 refugees have returned to Syria since Thursday and there were no new arrivals. They said the number of refugees still in Turkey is 10,497.

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Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid contributed to this report.

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Follow Bassem Mroue at http://twitter.com/bmroue and Diaa Hadid at http://twitter.com/diaahadid

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