BEIRUT — Syrian soldiers opened fire on protesters in at least one flashpoint city and deployed across the country Friday as President Bashar Assad’s embattled regime tries to crush a 5-month-old uprising despite broad international condemnation.
Activists said military raids earlier in the day killed two people.
Friday has become the main day for demonstrations in Syria, despite the near-certainty of a government crackdown with bullets and tear gas.
Syrian troops opened fire on thousands of protesters in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour after Friday prayers in two mosques, according to two main activist groups.
There was no immediate word on casualties in Deir el-Zour. But activists said Syrian troops killed two people during raids in the northern Idlib province and the suburbs of the capital, Damascus.
The protest in Deir el-Zour was significant because government forces took control of the city, along with Hama in central Syria, during deadly military assaults this week. Both cities had seen some of the largest protests in recent weeks before the government unleashed tanks and sniper to put down the revolts.
In Hama, Syrian troops surrounded mosques and set up checkpoints to head off any protests.
“There are security checkpoints every 200 meters (655 feet), they have lists and they’re searching people… the mosques are surrounded by soldiers,” a Hama-based activist told The Associated Press by telephone, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
He said tens of soldiers were stationed in the Assi square in Hama, which had been the main converging point for hundreds of thousands of protesters in recent weeks. Snipers were stationed on rooftops.
Syria has banned most foreign media and restricted local coverage, making it impossible to get independent confirmation of the events on the ground. The government has justified its crackdown by saying it was dealing with terrorist gangs and criminals who were fomenting unrest.
The military offensive reflects Assad’s determination to crush the uprising against his rule despite mounting international condemnation, including U.S. and European sanctions.
In Washington, presidential spokesman Jay Carney stopped just short of calling for Assad’s ouster, saying that Syria “would be a much better place without him.”
“We believe that President Assad’s opportunity to lead the transition has passed,” Carney told reporters traveling on Air Force One with President Barack Obama to Michigan.
On Friday, Syrian activists said troops and tanks stormed the town of Khan Sheikhon in the northern province of Idlib amid heavy gunfire that killed one woman.
The raid is part of a military operation in the restive area near the Turkish border in the past few days. Intense protests in the region triggered a harsh government response in June and forced thousands of Syrians to flee across the border to Turkey.
Many of those who fled are still living in several refugee camps across the border.
A flurry of foreign diplomats have rolled through Damascus urging Assad to end a campaign of killing that rights groups say has left about 1,700 civilians dead since mid-March.
But Assad has brushed off the reproach. In a continuing nationwide campaign of arrests, Syrian activists said security forces detained Abdul-Karim Rihawi, the Damascus-based head of the Syrian Human Rights League. A longtime rights activist, Rihawi had been tracking government violations and documenting deaths in Syria.
He was picked up from a cafe in central Damascus along with a journalist who had been interviewing him, according to rights activist Ammar Qurabi.
France on Friday condemned the arrest and called for his immediate release.
“By its brutal and symbolic character, the arrest of Abdul-Karim Rihawi constitutes a new unacceptable decision by the authorities of Damascus,” a French Foreign Ministry statement said.
The statement said the arrest goes against the expectations of the international community and said the violent repression and political arrests must cease in Syria.
The Syrian uprising was inspired by the revolts and calls for reform sweeping the Arab world, and activists and rights groups say most of those killed have been unarmed civilians. An aggressive new military offensive that began with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at the start of August has killed several hundred people in just one week.
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