VIDEO - A prominent Syrian human rights group says at least 49 people have been killed during pro-democracy protests - making Friday the deadliest day of the uprising.
Syrian security forces fired live bullets and tear gas at tens of thousands of people demonstrating in areas across the country. A 11-year-old child from the southern city of Daraa was said to be among the casualties.
Shootings were reported on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, and in the central city of Homs on a day that could be a major test of whether President Bashar Assad's promises of sweeping reform will quell the monthlong uprising.
"Bullets started flying over our heads like heavy rain," said one witness in Izraa, a southern village in Daraa province, the same region where the uprising kicked off in mid-March.
The protesters on the outskirts of Damascus on Friday chanted, "The people want the downfall of the regime." It's the same rallying cry that was heard during the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.
"We saw two snipers on the building. None of us had weapons. There are casualties, possibly two dead," a human rights campaigner who was at a protest at the city of Homs said. He claimed security forces had tried to prevent protestors from reaching a ruling Baath Party headquarters.
Other massive protests were reported in the coastal city of Banias, the northeastern Kurdish region and the southern city of Daraa, where the uprising kicked off more than a month ago.
Protestors in city of Banias (Photo: AFP)
The protest movement has crossed a significant threshold in recent days, with increasing numbers now seeking the downfall of the regime, not just reforms. The security crackdown has only emboldened protesters, who are enraged over the deaths of more than 200 people over five weeks.
The witness accounts could not be independently confirmed because Syria has expelled journalists and restricted access to trouble spots. Witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Activists promised that Friday's protests will be the biggest rallies yet against the regime led by Assad, who inherited power from his father 11 years ago in one of the most authoritarian countries in the Middle East.
Most volatile conflicts in region
The president has been trying to defuse the protests by launching a bloody crackdown along with a series of concessions, most recently lifting emergency laws that gave authorities almost boundless powers of surveillance and arrest.
He also has fulfilled a decades-old demand by granting citizenship to thousands among Syria's long-ostracized Kurdish minority, fired local officials, released detainees and formed a new government.
But many protesters said the concessions have come too late - and that Assad does not deserve the credit.
"The state of emergency was brought down, not lifted," prominent Syrian activist Suhair Atassi, who was arrested several times in the past, wrote on her Twitter page. "It is a victory as a result of demonstrations, protests and the blood of martyrs who called for Syria's freedom."
Earlier Friday, witnesses said security forces in uniform and plainclothes set up checkpoints around the Damascus suburb of Douma, checking peoples identity cards and preventing nonresidents from going in.
Syria stands in the middle of the most volatile conflicts in region because of its alliances with militant groups like Lebanon's Hezbollah and with Shiite powerhouse Iran. That has given Damascus a pivotal role in most of the flashpoint issues of the region, from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran's widening influence.
If the regime in Syria wobbles, it also throws into disarray the US push for engagement with Damascus, part of Washington's plan to peel the country away from its allegiance to Hamas, Hezbollah and Tehran.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report
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