Syrians defy crackdown to protest over Assad regime

Protesters appear to gather in Kusweh City. The BBC is unable to verify this footage.

Tens of thousands of Syrians have again taken to the streets for Friday protests, in defiance of the massive crackdown against them.

One human rights activist thought as many as 1.2 million people were taking part across the country.

Security was tight in the capital Damascus, with checkpoints set up, communications cut and arrests made.

There are reports of gunfire and tear gas being used against several demonstrations.

Activists say at least one person has been killed in Aleppo in north-west Syria, and another in the central city of Homs.

Police reportedly used batons as well as tear gas break up a protest in the mainly-Kurdish city of Qamishli.

Marches were also taking place in other Kurdish towns, in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, in the southern town of Sueweida and in the north-west province of Idlib.

There were also reports of demonstrations in Homs, 160km (100 miles) from Damascus, which has been subject to a massive military crackdown in recent days.

Activists say at least 50 people have been killed in Homs - which has been at the heart of the four-month uprising - since Saturday.

'Completely isolated'

Observers say the heavy military presence in Damascus is in response to last Friday, which saw some of the largest protests since the anti-government uprising began in March. Around 30 people were killed.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the districts of Qabun and Rukneddin had a heavily military presence, with barricades and checkpoints set up at entrances and exits.

"Rukneddin is completely isolated," the group's Rami Abdel Rahman told the AFP news agency. "Thousands of security officers are patrolling and conducting searches of homes and making arrests."

One activist in Damascus, Abu, told the BBC that communications and electricity in Harasta and Duman districts have been switched off.

He said that the security agents appeared to be changing tactics - "kidnapping people from streets and coffee shops" rather than arresting activists in their homes.

And Abu predicts the crackdown will increase in the lead up to Ramadan.

"Ramadan is soon and, in Ramadan, each day is like a Friday," he said. "We believe the government is trying to stop the activists before Ramadan."

International journalists have been denied access to Syria so it is difficult to verify reports.

Human rights groups say that about 1,400 civilians and 350 security forces personnel have died in the four months of protest.

The government blames the unrest on "armed criminal gangs" backed by a foreign conspiracy.

Syria's anti-government protests, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, first erupted in mid-March after the arrest of a group of teenagers who spray-painted a revolutionary slogan on a wall. The protests soon spread, and the UN says 3,500 people have died in the turmoil - mainly protestors but also members of Syria's security forces - while thousands more have been injured.
Although the arrest of the teenagers in the southern city of Deraa first prompted people to take to the streets, unrest has since spread to other areas, including Hama, Homs, Latakia, Jisr al-Shughour and Baniyas. Demonstrators are demanding greater freedom, an end to corruption, and, increasingly, the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad.
The government has responded to the protests with overwhelming military force, sending tanks and troops into towns and cities. Amateur video footage shows tanks and snipers firing on unarmed protesters. There may have been an armed element to the uprising from its early days and army deserters have formed the Free Syrian Army.
Some of the bloodiest events have taken place in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. In early June, officials claimed 120 security personnel were killed by armed gangs, however protesters said the dead were shot by troops for refusing to kill demonstrators. As the military moved to take control of the town, thousands fled to neighbouring Turkey, taking refuge in camps.
Although the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo have seen pockets of unrest and some protests, it has not been widespread - due partly to a heavy security presence. There have been rallies in the capital - one with an enormous Syrian flag - in support of President Assad, who still receives the backing of many in Syria's middle class, business elite and minority groups.
The Assad family has been in power for 40 years, with Bashar al-Assad inheriting office in 2000. The president has opened up the economy, but has continued to jail critics and control the media. He is from the minority Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shia Islam - but the country's 20 million people are mainly Sunni. The biggest protests have been in Sunni-majority areas.
The uprising has cost 3,500 lives, according to the UN and Jordan's King Abdullah says that President Assad should now step down. The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership and voted for sanctions. The EU has frozen the assets of Syrian officials, placed an arms embargo on Syria and banned imports of its oil. But fears remain of Syria collapsing into civil war.
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