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Activists shot dead in Syria cities

Thousands of Syrian protesters have poured down city streets and a main highway to press demands for President Bashar Assad's removal.

Security forces opened fire, killing at least 15 people, including two children, said activists.

Syria's streets have become the stage for a test of endurance between a three-month-old pro-democracy movement, bloodied but resilient, and an iron-fisted but embattled regime.

The latest round of protests and killings came as international pressure mounted on Assad.

"We will not stand by while the Syrian regime uses violent repression to silence its own people," Foreign Secretary William Hague said after the European Union expanded sanctions to more members of the Syrian leadership.

The Syrian opposition says 1,400 people have been killed as the government has cracked down on a movement demanding an end to four decades of Assad family rule - a popular uprising renewed each Friday after weekly Muslim prayers.

Five people were killed by security forces' gunfire in Barzeh, a Damascus district three miles from the city centre, said the Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), which track the protests. But Syrian state television offered another version, saying gunmen, otherwise unidentified, had opened fire on security personnel and civilians, killing three civilians and wounding several security force members.

Five other fatalities occurred in al-Kasweh, a suburb of the capital; four in the central city of Homs, and one in Hama, also in central Syria, said the LCC. Protests in several other provinces also came under fire but it was not immediately clear whether there were casualties, said LCC spokesman Omar Idilbi.

The group said the deaths included a 12-year-old boy, Rateb al-Orabi, killed when security forces fired on protesters in the Shammas neighbourhood in Homs, and a 13-year-old boy in al-Kasweh. The reports could not be independently verified.

In northern Syria, activists said at least 15,000 people staged a protest along the highway linking the country's two main cities, Damascus and Aleppo. Thousands marched in Amouda and Qamishli in the north-east and in other provinces, said Syria-based human rights activist Mustafa Osso.

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