At least eight killed in Syria protests

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At least eight people were reported killed by security forces during anti-regime protests across Syria on Friday, as Russia joined growing world pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to implement reforms but ruled out UN sanctions.

"We have three people killed in the southern town of Dael, three others in the Damascus suburb of Qatana, one in the suburb of Zabadani and another in Jableh, located near the coastal city of Latakia," said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The killings took place as pro-democracy protesters again took to the streets in several cities and towns across the country after Muslim Friday prayers in defiance of a brutal government crackdown.

Protesters in the central city of Homs could be heard chanting "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest), "Down with the regime" and "Get out, get out," in reference to Assad.

The death toll by early evening was far lower than last Friday when at least 44 people were killed by security forces during similar protests.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, meanwhile, joined a chorus of international calls for Assad to push forward with reforms but stressed that he was not in favour of sanctions against the authoritarian regime.

"We are not supporters of sanctions," Medvedev told reporters after the close of the Group of Eight summit in France. "Sanctions are by far not the best method."

But he added: "President Assad should switch from words to actions and conduct real democratic reforms."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy took a much firmer stand at the summit, endorsing a call by his US counterpart Barack Obama for Assad to lead a transition or "get out."

"We've done everything to bring Syria into the international community. Everything. We talked (to the Syrians), tried to help them, to understand them," said Sarkozy.

"Unfortunately, I'm sorry to say that Syria's leaders are moving quickly in reverse. Under these conditions, France withdraws its trust and denounces what must be denounced," he said.

Sarkozy's comments were the first time that France has spoken so explicitly about Assad leaving power. Until now France has simply called for an end to the repression in Syria and for reforms to be implemented.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also telephoned Assad on Friday and urged him to move towards reforms to end the deadly unrest, a government official in Ankara said.

Since the revolt in Syria erupted in mid-March, Friday protests have become a weekly ritual and are widely seen as a barometer of whether activists are able to maintain momentum despite the repression.

The protesters this week had reached out to the army in the hope that rank-and-file Sunni soldiers will mutiny and join the pro-democracy movement.

The army's top commanders are fiercely loyal to Assad and hail for the most part from his minority Alawite community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

"Honest soldiers, follow the example of the martyrs," chanted protesters on Friday in Homs.

Protests were also reported in the northern city of Aleppo, in the eastern town of Deir Ezzor, in several suburbs of Damascus, in Qamishli in the northeast of the country, and in the northern Kurdish-majority town of Amuda.

Activists in recent days have shifted their strategy, opting to stage demonstrations at night in a bid to outwit the security forces and avoid arrest.

More than 1,000 people have been killed and 10,000 others arrested since the revolt began in mid-March, according to rights groups.

Syrian authorities say 143 soldiers, security forces and police have been killed.

Foreign journalists have been barred from travelling inside Syria, making it difficult to report on the unrest and verify witness accounts.

The government insists that the unrest is the work of "armed terrorist gangs" backed by Islamists and foreign agitators.

It initially responded to the revolt by offering some concessions, including lifting the state of emergency in place for nearly five decades, but coupled this with a fierce crackdown.

The opposition has dismissed calls for dialogue, saying that could only take place once the violence ends, political prisoners are released and other reforms are adopted.

© 2011 AFP

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