Syria defies pressure, kills protesters

BEIRUT — Protesters throughout Syria joined in large, boisterous and peaceful rallies Friday, defying a bloody government crackdown that continued despite international calls the day before for the ouster of President Bashar Assad.

Security forces loyal to Assad shrugged off the mounting international pressure, killing at least 22 people and laying siege to several opposition strongholds. The southern province of Dara , where the uprising began following the detention and torture of a group of teenagers accused of writing graffiti, bore the brunt of the violence, with security forces allegedly killing 15 people, including two children, according to activists collecting names and accounts.

According to Local Coordinating Committees, an activist network, three soldiers were also shot dead in the province when they refused to open fire on demonstrators in the town of Inkhel.

The latest round of confrontations came a day after the United States and its chief European allies called on Assad to step aside for what they termed gross violations of human rights, and suggested how little leverage the international community has over a regime that has grown accustomed to its pariah status.

The U.S. also tightened sanctions on the regime, and European leaders were discussing new economic measures, including a possible sanction on Syrian energy companies. Tunisia, where the wave of uprisings against Arab autocrats began nine months ago, and Switzerland this week joined the list of countries recalling their ambassadors to Syria.

But Friday also showed the resolve of a protest movement that has grown geographically and found ever more creative ways to challenge Assad. "Bye, bye, Bashar!" protesters taunted in English as they held up their shoes — a grave insult to the president in a Muslim culture — in the city of Homs, according to video posted to the Internet.

On a day dubbed "the promise of victory" by activists, protesters gathered even in areas that had come under attack by security forces in recent weeks, which have coincided with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Security forces responded with gunfire, according to witnesses and activists, despite assurances Assad reportedly made to a United Nations envoy this week that the crackdown against protesters had ended.