Firing bullets and tear gas, Syrian security forces killed at least five people today as hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters defied a massive security crackdown and flooded the streets of Damascus and other cities, activists said.
Protesters held banners that read "Enough Killing!" and accused the Syrian regime of trying to terrify people into submission by stirring up sectarian strife. In the past week, a wave of sectarian bloodshed in the central city of Homs killed dozens, activists say.
"They are trying to turn the conflict into a sectarian one, and we insist that it is not," a protester said from the central city of Hama.
The uprising has grown steadily over more than four months, posing the most serious threat to the Assad family's four-decade rule. Last Friday saw the largest crowds yet, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets across the country.
Syrian security forces killed 32 people last Friday, half of them in the capital, activists said. In an apparent effort to avoid a repeat of that, security forces deployed heavily in Damascus as early as dawn Friday, pulling people from their homes and setting up checkpoints.
Still, activists said, thousands of people protested in the Midan, al-Mleiha and Hajar al-Aswad districts of the capital. Soldiers and security forces fanned out in the Qaboun and Rukneddine neighbourhoods.
Tens of thousands were in the streets in the northern Idlib province, in eastern Syria's Deir ez-Zour region and in southern Syria.
Police also used batons and tear gas to disperse protesters in several places, including the predominantly Kurdish city of Qamishli, where several were reported wounded.
Activists said security forces killed at least five people on Friday. The dead included a protester in Damascus, one in the northern city of Idlib, one who died by sniper fire in Homs and a person stabbed by a pro-regime gunmen in the north-eastern city of Aleppo, said Omar Idilbi, a spokesman for the Local Co-ordination Committees, which help organise and document the protests.
A protester who was wounded earlier this month in Hama also died of his injuries on Friday.