Syrian troops fire on crowds seeking change

BEIRUT — Syrian troops used heavy machine guns and artillery to quell anti-government demonstrations in the key city of Homs on Friday in a sharp escalation of their crackdown against regime opponents, as tens of thousands of Syrians again defied the threat of bullets and tanks to take to the streets around the country.

Witnesses reached by telephone in Homs on Friday evening said they could hear what appeared to be pitched battles in several neighborhoods, prompting speculation that some members of the security forces had defected.

Syrian state television reported that 10 members of the security forces had been killed in Homs by "armed gangs," the term used by the government to describe the protesters. But there have been no indications that any members of the seemingly spontaneous and mostly leaderless protest movement are armed.

At least 26 people were killed when Syrian forces opened fire on demonstrators, with 11 deaths reported in Homs and six in the nearby town of Hama, said Wissam Tarif of the human rights group Insan.

The clashes in Homs came amid signs that Syrians have not been cowed by the hundreds of deaths and thousands of arrests carried out in recent weeks in an effort to suppress the biggest challenge to the regime since President Bashar al-Assad's father put down an armed revolt in Hama in 1982.

That crackdown, in which as many as 40,000 people died, earned the Syrian regime a reputation as one of the most repressive in the Middle East, and when revolts began rippling around the region earlier in the year, many predicted that Syrians would not dare join the swelling clamor for change.

But although Syrians came relatively late to the game, with no significant protests reported until mid-March, their opposition movement seems only to have swelled in the face of the government's increasingly brutal crackdown. Human rights groups say more than 500 people have been killed, most of them at demonstrations, and at least 5,000 arrested.

Responding to calls by activists to stage a "day of defiance" to protest the security crackdown, people swarmed out of mosques after noontime prayers in dozens of locations around the country, many of them calling for the overthrow of the regime.