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More deaths reported as Syrian demonstrators call for international protection

Syrian protesters called on Friday for international protection from a military crackdown that has sought to crush nearly six months of nationwide demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

Activists said 14 people were killed across the country as large crowds marched in the cities of Homs and Deir al-Zor, where the army and militiamen loyal to Assad have carried out raids in recent weeks.

Protests also broke out in suburbs of the capital Damascus, the Kurdish northeast, the northwestern province of Idlib near Turkey and in southern Syria near Jordan. Friday, the Muslim prayer day, has traditionally seen the largest demonstrations.

Assad has responded to the unrest, inspired by Arab popular uprisings that have toppled three autocratic leaders in North Africa this year, with military assaults in which the United Nations says 2,200 people have died.

“The Syrian people demand international protection for civilians,” read a banner in Idlib.

In Hajar al-Aswad, on the southern edge of Damascus, protesters carried a green, white and red-striped old Syrian flag, dating back half a century to the era before Assad’s Baath Party seized control of Syria.

“After all these killings and assaults, where is international protection?” read a banner carried by protesters who chanted: “The people want the execution of the president.”

Western countries have imposed limited economic sanctions on Syria but have not seriously considered direct intervention along the lines of the NATO bombing of Libya that helped topple its leader Muammar Qaddafi.

Friday’s protests echoed the first direct call on Thursday by the Syrian opposition for foreign intervention. The Syrian Revolution General Commission, an umbrella bloc of activists, appealed to world powers to send human rights monitors.

Syrian forces arrested dozens of people in house-to-house raids in Homs on Thursday after military operations that killed at least 27 civilians on Wednesday. Activists and residents also reported more defections among the rank-and-file army.

Human Rights Watch said security forces “forcibly removed 18 wounded people” from a hospital in Homs on Wednesday, and also prevented medical personnel from reaching wounded people.

“Snatching wounded people from the operating room is inhumane and illegal, not to mention life-threatening,” said HRW Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson.

The European Union, which has imposed an embargo on Syrian oil imports, moved closer to banning investment in the oil industry, EU diplomats said on Friday.

Envoys from the EU’s 27 capitals have given preliminary agreement for a ban which could be put in place in the coming days or weeks. They may also agree a ban on doing business with firms including Syria’s largest mobile phone company, Syriatel.

The EU banned imports of Syrian crude oil last week. Syria is not a major oil producer, accounting for just 0.5 percent of world production, but 99 percent of its exports last year went to Europe and some EU oil companies have big investments there.

However, there has been no hint in the West of an appetite for military action along Libyan lines. Syria has three times Libya’s population, and unlike isolated Libya it is intricately linked to neighbors on the fault lines of Mid-East conflicts.

Syria has long had a strong regional alliance with Iran, but in an unusual sign of unease Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad urged Assad to open talks with the opposition, saying a military crackdown is “never the right solution.”

Iran crushed its own anti-government street protests in 2009 after Ahmadinejad’s contested re-election.

The Syrian military launched offensives against the cities of Latakia, Aleppo and Deir al-Zor last month. Assad’s government says it is fighting a foreign conspiracy to divide Syria and blames armed terrorist groups for killing 500 members of the army and police.

Syria’s powerful neighbor Turkey indicated that its patience was running thin given the lack of progress in its efforts to convince Assad to halt military assaults.

In Idlib province near the border with Turkey, at least three army defectors were killed by the military as it raided the Jabal al-Zawiya area in pursuit of deserters, local activists said.

Assad, the ruling hierarchy and most of the army officer corps are from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The majority of Syrians, including most rank-and-file soldiers, are Sunni Muslims.

Russia, which has an old navy base in Syria and gas and oil concessions, hinted that it is ready to discuss a possible UN Security Council resolution on Syria but will not support a document that targets only the authorities for censure.

“They must send a firm signal to all conflicting sides that they need to sit down at the negotiations table, they need to agree and stop the bloodshed,” President Dmitry Medvedev said in published remarks.

Syrian opposition figures met officials in Moscow on Friday, urging Russia to do more to support protesters.

“The incomprehensible and contradictory position of the Russian leadership on what is happening in Syria could hurt Russia's image in the future,” said Ammar al-Qurabi.