14 killed in huge Syria protests
Hundreds of thousands of protesters have flooded cities around Syria in what activists described as the largest outpouring against the regime of President Bashar Assad.
At least 14 people were killed in clashes, activists said. The rage - flaring in dozens of places at the same time - further strained the resources of Assad's security forces and military as they also try to choke off a refugee wave into Turkey.
The hub of the latest protests - the central city of Hama - brings further complications for the government. Security forces moved outside Hama in early June after shootings that left 65 people dead, and now the streets appear fully under the sway of the opposition with an estimated 300,000 people gathering in the central square, activists said.
Crowd estimates and other details cannot be independently verified. The Syrian government has banned most foreign media from the country and restricted coverage.
But the protests appeared to dwarf those in recent weeks as Assad's forces tried to wear down the opposition with relentless force. Syrian rights groups said more than 1,400 people have been killed, most of them unarmed protesters, since mid-March.
The regime disputes that, 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.
In Hama, anti-government crowds defiantly staked their claim to the city which carries important symbolism to the opposition. In 1982, Assad's late father, Hafez Assad, stormed the city to crush an uprising, leaving between 10,000 and 25,000 people dead, rights groups say.
Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso estimated 300,000 people joined the rally in Hama without any sign of security forces, which remained outside the city and appeared unwilling to risk major bloodshed again.
It also could reflect fatigue in Assad's core troops and the need to concentrate on what officials consider strategic fronts. Assad's elite forces have waged nearly non-stop crackdowns around the country as new protest hotbeds emerged.
Now, they are mobilised in difficult terrain along the Turkish border in efforts to clamp down on refugees fleeing. The regime is deeply embarrassed by the exodus and also fears the camps could become opposition enclaves out of the government's reach."Syrian security forces are exhausted," said Mr Osso. "There are demonstrations all over Syria and they cannot cover these areas."