34 die in Syria on 'Freedom Friday'

BEIRUT — Syrian security forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, ignoring international pressure, fired on anti-government protesters, killing at least 34 on a day activists tried to draw the country's Kurdish minority into the nationwide movement for political change.

The violent response to the demonstrations defied President Obama's call a day earlier for Assad to either embrace political change in Syria or give up power. Security forces and plainclothes shabiha militiamen recruited from Assad's dominant Allawite Muslim minority fired on protesters, burned down the homes and shops of suspected protesters, and rounded people up and herded them into detention centers, activists said.

It occurred as pro-democracy activists tried to broaden the movement against the government by appealing to the country's ethnic Kurdish minority, which harbors its own grievances against the government. The activists dubbed the loosely organized day of mass protests after weekly prayers "Azadi Friday," or "Friday of freedom." Azadi is the Kurdish word for freedom.

The call drew thousands of protesters into the streets in Kurdish towns along the country's northern border. In the Kurdish stronghold of Qamishli, protesters held up signs calling for freedom in Arabic, Kurdish and Aramaic, the language of the country's Assyrian Christian minority, in a show of unity across Syria's ethnic and sectarian fault lines.

Assad has tried to prevent Kurdish discontent from fusing with the general uprising against his family's authoritarian rule. And while the tens of thousands of demonstrators in other parts of the country were met with gunfire and arrest, security forces generally showed some restraint in dealing with the Kurdish protesters.

Experts say Syrian authorities have used caution when dealing with the Kurds because they are fearful of inciting nationalist aspirations.