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Syrians brave tear gas, gunfire in anti-Assad protests

Reuters

Demonstrators gather during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in Binsh, near Idlib, on Friday.

Tens of thousands of Syrians braved tear gas and gunfire to protest across the country Friday, vowing to storm the capital Damascus to oust President Bashar Assad as the European Union ramped up pressure on the regime by imposing sanctions on his wife and other close relatives.

Security forces deployed in many cities to disperse protests, but opposition groups reported fewer protester deaths than in past weeks. Activists said more than 20 people were killed nationwide in army attacks on opposition areas or clashes with armed rebels.

International condemnation and high-level diplomacy have failed to stop the year-old Syria crisis, which the U.N. says has killed more than 8,000 people, many of them civilian protesters.


Friday's sanctions bring to 13 the sets imposed by the EU to try to compel the regime to halt its violent crackdown on dissent. The U.S. and others have also imposed sanctions. Previous measures were aimed at Syrian companies and Assad himself.

EU bans Assad's wife from traveling and shopping within its territories

Those imposed Friday targeted Asma Assad, Syria's British-born first lady, banning her from traveling to EU countries and freezing any assets she may have there. They also included the president's mother, sister, sister-in-law and eight government ministers.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said sanctions were weakening the regime.

"Their economic situation becomes ever more difficult. Syria has few reserves," he said. "We think its economic situation will become untenable."

The new sanctions came on a day of renewed violence across Syria, with the army raining mortar rounds into the rebellious city of Homs, killing civilians, opposition supporters said.

Live television feeds from around Syria showed a slew of anti-Assad rallies, including in the Damascus district of Barzeh, in the northwestern city of Hama, in Qamishli in the Kurdish east, and in the southern province of Deraa.

"Damascus here we come," read several placards held up by the relatively small crowds. Activists said eight people were wounded after demonstrations near five Damascus mosques were broken up by security forces.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 13 civilians were killed in government attacks Friday. Government troops and armed rebels clashed in a number of places, with at least seven soldiers and one rebel fighter killed, the group said.

Another group, the Local Coordination Committees, said government troops killed 36 civilians on Friday. It did not provide details on each civilian killed.

On the diplomatic front, the U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who is leading international efforts to stop the relentless mayhem, planned to travel to Moscow and Beijing this weekend for talks on the crisis, his spokesman said.

At least 500 children killed in conflict
While sanctions have hurt Syria's economy, they appear to have had little effect on the regime's actions.

In Geneva, the U.N. Human Rights Council blasted Syria's crackdown and extended the mandate of a U.N. expert panel tasked with reporting on alleged abuses in the country.

A resolution passed by the 47-member body condemned "widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms perpetrated" by Syrian authorities, including summary executions, torture and sexual abuse of detainees and children.

Also Friday, UNICEF said at least 500 children have been killed in the conflict, while hundreds more have been injured, detained or abused. The U.N. children's agency said schools have closed and health centers have shut down or become too dangerous for many families to reach.

Throughout the conflict, China and Russia have protected Syria from censure by the U.N. Security Council, fearing a strongly worded resolution condemning Assad could pave the way for military intervention, as happened in Libya last year.

Russia, however, softened its stance Thursday by calling for Assad to pull his troops out of Syrian cities. The U.N. has been trying to secure a cease-fire so all parties could hold a dialogue on a political solution to end the conflict. So far, both sides have refused talks.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Observatory, said Friday evening that he had yet to confirm the death of one protester during the day, saying this is unusual because many more protesters are often killed by security forces.

"We hope it happens like this every time because we don't want anyone to die," he said.

The Syrian government has barred most media from working in the country, and activist accounts could not be independently verified.

Syria's state news agency said hundreds marched in a pro-Assad demonstration in the capital Damascus and published photos of them carrying Syrian flags and Assad photos.

In Jordan's capital Amman, blind Syrian cleric Ahmad al-Sayasneh called on a congregation of 1,000 Syrians to "remain steadfast until our tyrant leadership is ousted."

It was the cleric's first public appearance since fleeing Syria two months ago. Al-Sayasneh rose to prominence though his fiery sermons calling for civil disobedience at a mosque in the southern Syrian town of Deraa, considered the uprising's birthplace.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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