Syrians step up protests despite violence, arrests

BEIRUT — In a striking show of strength, the popular movement opposing Syrian President Bashar Assad took the streets in large numbers across the country after weekly prayers, defying a campaign of violence and mass detentions by security forces.

Protesters' exuberance in demonstrations from the Mediterranean coast to the east border, and north to south, appeared to catch authorities and even some activists off guard. Assad's aides had publicly claimed in recent days to have gained the upper hand. Some activists had tried to lower expectations for the protests after Friday prayers.

Instead, the size and scale of the civil disobedience appeared to show a new level of determination by a movement now loudly demanding an end to the regime.

Robust demonstrations broke out in the capital, Damascus, including in the Muhajereen district close to Assad's residence, a sign they were spreading to the very center of power.

"We knew that there would be a high price to pay for our freedom, but we've taken the first steps now, finally, and we will not turn back," said a 50-year-old Damascus woman who took part in the protests, speaking on condition she not be named.

Protests also erupted in and around the besieged cities of Homs and Daraa, where tanks have fired at residential neighborhoods and security officials have conducted house-to-house raids in search of protesters.

It remained unclear whether the protests and the country's leaderless opposition could bring about the downfall of the Assad's Baath Party regime, which appears to have maintained a tight grip over security forces.

The Syrian regime's repression has alarmed an international community seeking to support pro-democracy movements inspired by revolutions this year in Egypt and Tunisia. Uprisings against autocratic regimes have stalled as authorities in Syria, Bahrain and Libya resort to extreme violence and repression.