BEIRUT (AP) — Thousands of defiant Syrians chanting "We are not afraid!" were met by security forces firing bullets and tear gas Friday in a crackdown on nationwide protests that left 42 people dead — many of them villagers trying to break an army blockade of the southern city where the six-week uprising began.
President Bashar Assad again unleashed deadly force in a determined effort to crush the revolt, the gravest challenge to his family's 40-year ruling dynasty.
Although still in control, he will struggle to recover legitimacy at home and abroad if he manages to stay in power. The United States slapped three top officials in his regime — including his brother — with sanctions and nations agreed to launch a U.N.-led investigation of Syria's crackdown.
Human rights groups say about 500 people have been killed since the uprising began.
Many of the 42 people killed Friday were in Daraa, said human rights activist Mustafa Osso, whose Syria-based group compiles casualty lists from the crackdown. He told The Associated Press that the death toll could rise,
Thousands of people from the outskirts of Daraa tried to break the military siege on the town Friday, but security forces opened fire, witnesses and human rights groups said.
A witness in Daraa said residents stayed indoors because the city has been under siege by the military since Monday, when thousands of soldiers backed by tanks and snipers stormed in. People were too afraid even to venture out to mosques for prayers, the witness said.
"We are in our houses but our hearts are in the mosques," the witness said, speaking by satellite telephone and asking that his name not be used for fear of reprisals.
A devastating picture was emerging of Daraa — which has been without electricity, water and telephones since Monday — as residents fled to neighboring countries. The uprising began in Daraa in mid-March, sparked by the arrest of teenagers who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall.
"Nobody can move in (Daraa). They have snipers on the high roofs," a resident told the AP using a satellite phone. "They are firing at everything."
At the Jordanian side of the Syrian border, several Daraa residents who had just crossed said there is blood on the streets of the city.
"Gunfire is heard across the city all the time," one man said, asking that his name not be used for fear of retribution. "People are getting killed in the streets by snipers if they leave their homes."
An AP reporter at the border heard gunfire and saw smoke rising from different areas just across the frontier. Residents said the shooting has been constant for three weeks.
Syria has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted access to trouble spots, making it almost impossible to verify the dramatic events shaking one of the most authoritarian, anti-Western regimes in the Arab world.
Large demonstrations were reported Friday in the capital of Damascus, the central city of Homs, the coastal cities of Banias and Latakia, the northern cities of Raqqa and Hama, and the northeastern town of Qamishli near the Turkish border.
Outside Homs, thousands chanted "We don't love you!" and "Bye-bye, Bashar! We will see you in The Hague!" as the sound of gunfire crackled in the distance.
In Damascus' central Midan neighborhood, witnesses said about 2,000 people marched and chanted, "God, Syria and freedom only!" in a heavy rain, but security forces opened fire with bullets and tear gas, scattering them.
"Oh great Syrian army! Lift the blockade on Daraa!" protesters chanted in the Damascus suburb of Barzeh, according to a video posted by activists on YouTube.
The government had warned people against holding any demonstrations Friday and placed large banners around the capital that read: "We urge the brother citizens to avoid going out of your homes on Friday for your own safety." Syrian TV said the Interior Ministry has not approved any "march, demonstration or sit-in" and that such rallies seek only to harm Syria's security and stability.
A witness in Latakia said about 1,000 people turned out for an anti-government rally when plainclothes security agents with automatic rifles opened fire. He said he saw at least five people wounded. Like many witnesses contacted by the AP, he asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisal.
Assad's government says the protests are a foreign conspiracy by extremists and armed thugs, not true reform-seekers. Syrian TV said military and police forces came under attack Friday by "armed terrorists" in Daraa and Homs, killing four soldiers and three police officers. Two soldiers were captured, the report said. The station also said one of its cameramen was injured in Latakia by an armed gang.
Last week, Syria's Cabinet abolished the state of emergency, in place for decades, and approved a new law allowing the right to stage peaceful protests with the permission of the Interior Ministry.
But the protesters, enraged by the mounting death toll, are no longer satisfied with the changes and are increasingly seeking the regime's downfall.
Assad has acknowledged the need for reforms, offering overtures of change in recent weeks while brutally cracking down on demonstrations.
His regime has stepped up its campaign by sending out the army along with snipers and tanks. But on Friday, protesters came out in their thousands, defying the warnings and using the crackdown as a rallying cry.