Syrians mount biggest protests so far, 20 killed

Syrian security forces shot dead at least 20 protesters on Friday as hundreds of thousands of people took...

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Picture: AFP

Syrian security

forces shot dead at least 20 protesters on Friday as hundreds of

thousands of people took to the streets across the country in the

biggest protests so far against President Bashar al-Assad.

Assad, facing the greatest

challenge to 40 years of Baath Party rule, has sought to crush

demonstrations that broke out in March. But although rights groups say

some 1,400 civilians have been killed, the protests have swelled in

size.

"These are the biggest

demonstrations so far. It is a clear challenge to the authorities,

especially when we see all these numbers coming out from Damascus for

the first time," said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory

for Human Rights.

Police fired live

ammunition and teargas in the capital Damascus and its suburbs, killing

11 people, and in southern Syria near the Jordanian border, where four

people were killed, witnesses and activists said.

Three

protesters were also shot dead in the northwestern province of Idlib,

near the Turkish border, where troops and tanks have attacked villages,

the witnesses and activists said. Two people were also killed in the

city of Homs.

A witness in the Rukn

al-Din district of Damascus said hundreds of young men wearing white

masks fought security forces with sticks and stones.

"Down, down Bashar al-Assad," they chanted.

"We

are in Midan and they are firing teargas at us, people are chanting," a

witness said by telephone from the centre of Damascus.

In

the city of Hama, scene of a 1982 massacre by the military, live video

footage filmed by residents showed a huge crowd in the main Orontos

Square shouting "the people want the overthrow of the regime."

At

least 350,000 people demonstrated in the eastern province of Deir al

Zor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Syrian forces shot

dead two pro-democracy protesters there on Thursday, residents said.

BIGGEST PROTESTS IN DAMASCUS

Until

now, the biggest demonstrations have taken place in impoverished towns

and villages outside Damascus where one in 10 of Syria's 20 million

population lives. Protests in the capital have rarely mustered more than

a few hundred people.

Damascus

has benefited from substantial foreign investment and its citizens are

on average wealthier than those in the provinces. Security is also much

tighter.

Activists estimate the

number of secret police on the streets of Damascus has more than doubled

since protests started but the economy has stagnated. Faced with

uncertainty, foreign investors are pulling out in droves and

unemployment is rising.

To counter

that, Syria's main ally, Iran, is considering offering $5.8 billion

(3.6 billion pounds) in financial help, including a three-month loan

worth $1.5 billion to be made available immediately, French business

newspaper Les Echos said, citing a report by a Tehran think-tank linked

to Iran's leadership.

International

sanctions are targeted at Syria's leaders, not at its banks and

companies. But France and the United States are pressing for tougher

penalties and a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning

the crackdown, after the embassies of both countries in Syria were

attacked.

"We have said Syria can't

go back to the way it was before, that Assad has lost his legitimacy in

the eyes of his own people," U.S. Secretary of States Hillary Clinton

told a news conference in Istanbul.

"We,

along with many others in the region and beyond, have said we strongly

support a democratic transition," she said. "The ultimate destiny of the

Syrian regime and Syrian people lies with the people themselves."

Assad

has responded to protests with a mixture of force and promises of

reforms. He has given thousands of Kurds citizenship and ended a state

of emergency. He has also called for dialogue but main opposition groups

and figures boycotted a conference organised by the government because

the violence has continued.

Emboldened

by the spreading protests, prominent opposition figures and activists

are to hold a conference in Istanbul on Saturday that will be closely

coordinated with another conference in Damascus to form a shadow

government of "independent, non-political technocrats" to prepare for

when Assad loses authority.