Syria forces killed 12 people on Friday as they fired on rallies supporting army defectors opposed to a crackdown that has killed thousands of people.
“Twelve demonstrators were killed today,” the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP by telephone.
The toll included seven in Dael on the outskirts of Deraa, a flashpoint town in the south; a demonstrator in Saqba on the outskirts of Damascus, one in the al-Qadam neighborhood of Damascus and another on the outskirts of Aleppo.
“There were massive demonstrations in several Syrian cities despite a significant deployment of security forces,” it said, including a rally in Deir al-Zor, “the largest since military operations ended there in August.”
Syrians also staged demonstrations in the northwestern province of Idlib, the central region of Homs, the coastal city of Latakia and Damascus, the Observatory said.
Pro-democracy activists called for nationwide demonstrations on Friday in support of “free soldiers” -- a reference to defectors -- after 36 people, including 25 soldiers, were killed in clashes across the country on Thursday.
“The free men of the army do not kill the free men of the people who are calling for their freedom,” The Syrian Revolution 2011, a motor of protests, said.
The Observatory has reported mounting armed resistance to security forces. Clashes in Banash and Deraa on Thursday pitted troops against deserters, who apparently mutinied rather than obey orders to shoot civilian protesters.
Friday’s shootings, near Aleppo and in suburbs of Damascus, occurred as protesters took to the streets after weekly Muslim prayers, as they have done many times since Syria’s uprising began in March, inspired by popular revolts that have ousted three Arab leaders this year.
In the eastern city of Qamishli, near the Turkish border, 20,000 people marched to honor Kurdish activist Mishaal al-Tammo, who was killed a week ago, according to Reuters.
The United Nations said the death toll from the unrest had reached 3,000, including at least 187 children. Its human rights chief demanded that the world act to stop the carnage.
Several thousand people marched in the town of Hirak in the southern Hauran plain, the first region where Assad used tanks and troops to try to crush the uprising early on.
“There is renewed optimism that the regime’s days are numbered. We are seeing more army defections, economic sanctions biting, the West keeping up pressure and more movement from Arab countries,” said Mohammed al-Arabi, an activist in Hirak, who cited last week’s defection of a senior intelligence officer.
In Homs, video footage showed thousands rally in the Khalidiya district, shouting “Syria is destined for freedom.”
Western governments have issued increasingly shrill warnings that unless the Assad regime heeds popular demands for reform, the so far peaceful protest movement risks feeling it has little alternative but to turn to violence.
China and Russia vetoed a draft resolution U.N. Security Council resolution proposed by European governments, which warned of “targeted measures,” but not sanctions, against the regime.
On Thursday, the European Union broadened its own sanctions against Damascus by freezing the assets of an entity that “financially supports the regime.”
The statement did not name that entity, but diplomats said it was the Commercial Bank of Syria, which was already sanctioned by the United States in August over its alleged financing of Syrian missiles and unconventional weapons.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the decision was a “direct consequence of the appalling and brutal campaign the Syrian regime is waging against its own people.”
Denial of Syrian ambassador in Beirut
In Beirut, the Syrian ambassador denied reports that his embassy was behind the disappearance of Syrian opposition members who have gone missing in Lebanon, calling such accusations “unfounded.”
“I am puzzled by these unfounded claims that have been attributed to the police chief,” Ali Abdul Karim Ali told reporters after meeting Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour.
“Such accusations affect coordination between the two countries as concerns security issues,” he added.
Earlier this week, an MP with Lebanon’s Western-backed opposition said police had information implicating the Syrian embassy in the disappearance of at least four opposition figures in Lebanon.
Among them is Shebli al-Aysami, 86, a co-founder of Syria’s ruling Baath party, who fled his country in 1966 over political differences. He was last seen in May in eastern Lebanon.
Ali accused some Lebanese officials and MPs of seeking to undermine his country and noted that Lebanese police in recent weeks had arrested several traffickers sending weapons to Syria.
“All these issues need to be dealt with so that they don't affect security in Lebanon or Syria,” he said.
Syria blames the violence on foreign-backed armed groups who it says have killed 1,100 soldiers and police. Assad was quoted by state media this week as saying Syria had “passed the most difficult stage” of the uprising.
Authorities have barred most foreign media from Syria, making it hard to verify accounts by the government or its foes.
Despite his confident comments, Assad faces growing regional pressure. Neighboring Turkey, a former close ally, says it will impose sanctions on Damascus. Gulf Arab states have called for an Arab League meeting to discuss the “dire” situation in Syria.
Sectarian tension between majority Sunnis and minority Alawites has surfaced in the city, and armed resistance to Assad's rule has spread in the countryside nearby.