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DAMASCUS - Syrian forces shot dead at least 38 people when they moved in to disperse thousands who took to the

Bloody Friday

Syrian forces kill 38 people at 'Good Friday' protests a day after Assad scraps decades of emergency rules.


 streets for "Good Friday" protests to test long sought-after freedoms, sources said.

A day after President Bashar al-Assad scrapped decades of emergency rule, his forces fired live rounds at demonstrators in several towns and cities nationwide, witnesses and activists said by telephone.

The official SANA news agency said security forces intervened using only tear gas and water cannon to "prevent clashes" between protesters and passers-by.

A coalition of protesters from across Syria meanwhile issued a list of demands in a statement blasting "attempts by the Syrian tyrannical machine to thwart and circumvent the acquisition of our basic rights and needs."

Friday's death toll was the bloodiest since protests for democratic change -- the first since emergency rule was imposed by the ruling Baath Party when it seized power in 1963 -- erupted in mid-March.

The toll rose steadily throughout the day, according to the sources reached by AFP in Nicosia.

Dozens of people were also wounded when security forces opened fire with live rounds to disperse protesters, the sources said.

At least 14 people were reported killed in the town of Ezreh, in the southern province of Daraa, epicentre of pro-reform and anti-regime protests that erupted in mid-March, the sources said.

One person was killed in Hirak, also in the Daraa region.

Nine people died in the northern Damascus suburb of Douma, the sources added.

And six people were also killed in the Damascus neighbourhoods of Barzeh, Harasta and Al-Maadamiyah.

Two people were also killed in the northern city of Hama, site of a government-sponsored massacre of Islamists in 1982, and two others perished in the main Syrian port city of Latakia, while four died in central Homs.

SANA, which said security forces "intervened" using tear gas and water cannon "to prevent clashes between protesters and citizens and protect public property," also reported confrontations in Hajar Asswad near Damascus.

Thousands of protesters swarmed the mainly Kurdish city of Qamishli in northeastern Syria and Banias in the north and the protest hub of Daraa, in the south, with demonstrators calling for the fall of the regime.

Protesters in Zabadani, northwest of Damascus, called for Assad's regime to stand down and also chanted slogans hostile to key regional Syria allies Iran and the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, witnesses said.

About 200 people chanting "freedom, freedom" marched in central Damascus but were quickly dispersed by police, said an activist, while 100 who protested in the central city of Raqqa were scattered by baton-wielding pro-regime supporters, lawyer Abdullah Khalil said.

Assad, in power since replacing his father Hafez as president in 2000, issued decrees Thursday scrapping emergency rule, abolishing the state security court and allowing citizens to hold peaceful demonstrations.

But his detractors said the moves were not enough, and the so-called Syrian Local Coordinating Committees of protesters made a raft of demands, urging a halt to the torture, killings and arrests of protesters.

It demanded the release of all political prisoners, media freedom and an independent investigation into the deaths of protesters.

The group also urged "the completion of the constitutional amendments that will allow for a democratic transition of Syria to become a respected, multi-national, multi-ethnic and religiously tolerant society."

"This includes the repeal of Constitutional Article 8, which would limit the number of presidential terms to two sessions," a statement read.

Friday's protests came after a call by Facebook group The Syrian Revolution 2011 for rallies spanning the Christian and Muslim faiths on "Good Friday," which commemorates Jesus Christ's crucifixion.

Friday is also the Muslim day of rest when the biggest demonstrations have been staged across Syria after weekly prayers.

Assad's scrapping of emergency rule and abolition of the state security court was the latest in a series of concessions over the past month to placate protesters.

Activists welcomed the moves but called for more changes while rights watchdogs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said Friday's protests would be a test of Assad's real intentions.

"President al-Assad has the opportunity to prove his intentions by allowing tomorrow's protests to proceed without violent repression," HRW said.

Before Friday, security forces and plain-clothes police had killed about 220 people in a brutal crackdown on the protests, which broke out in Damascus on March 15, according to Amnesty.

Syria's emergency law restricted many civil liberties, including public gatherings and freedom of movement.

The state security court operated outside the ordinary judicial system and prosecuted suspects considered a threat to the government's authority.



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