DAMASCUS // Syrian protesters held their largest anti-regime demonstrations in months yesterday, with 200,000 taking to the streets in Homs, according to opposition activists.
A heavy security presence and army checkpoints preventing free movement meant protesters could not gather in a single, central area.
Instead, opposition figures in the city said neighbourhoods had held separate demonstrations as residents left mosques following Friday prayers, each involving thousands of people.
The scale of protests cannot be independently verified but footage on satellite news channels, apparently broadcast live from Homs, a key centre of the nine-month-old uprising, indicated that significant demonstrations were taking place.
The last time activists were able to stage such huge protests was in July, when more than 500,000 people were said to have taken part in anti-regime rallies in Hama, another central Syrian city.
A military assault at the start of August put a stop to such large-scale, open public dissent there.
Opposition activists have warned that Homs may now face a similar fate, with warnings that a build-up of troops and security forces may herald a planned attack.
Protests in Homs have been protected from attack by armed guards, mainly residents and army defectors carrying small arms, activists say.
But there have also been growing signs that a war is underway in the city, one already stained by sectarian bloodshed between the Sunni majority and Alawite minority.
Syria's president, Bashar Al Assad, and the main figures in his ruling circle are all Alawites.
Pro-government media denied any activists had taken to the streets in Homs on Friday, with the correspondent for Al Dounia television suggesting that opposition groups had built a film set-style mock-up portraying areas of the city in Qatar, from where they acted out fabricated rallies.
Syrian officials have repeatedly accused Qatar and GCC states of stoking the uprising as part of an effort to overthrow Mr Al Assad in pursuit of an agenda driven by America and Israel.
At least four people were killed by security forces nationwide yesterday, according to human rights groups, although some activists said the actual number was 14.
It can take days for casualty figures to seep through and they remain a subject of much dispute.
Last week the UN human rights commission said more than 5,000 people had been killed by the security services since March as part of a "systematic" campaign of violence intended to crush largely peaceful anti-regime protests.
Mr Al Assad has dismissed such figures, saying that about 1,000 security personnel had been killed by "terrorists", who were also responsible for civilian casualties.
Sana, the official state news agency, made no mention of civilian deaths yesterday, but said security forces had killed members of an "armed terrorist gang" in Deraa, the southern province in which the uprising began in March.
The latest protests came after Russia proposed the text for a draft UN Security Council resolution that was more critical of its ally Damascus than a pervious version, suggesting Moscow could be toughening its stance.
Under the new text, Russia condemned violence by all parties and ruled out foreign intervention, as it had done previously, but specifically referred to the "disproportionate use of force by the Syrian authorities".
It also called on the Syrian authorities to "put an end to suppression of those exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association".
According to Russian news agencies, the Syrian vice president, Faruq Al Shara, arrived in Moscow yesterday for talks.
The Arab League's working group on Syria is due to meet in Doha today, after a planned meeting of regional foreign ministers to discuss a league peace plan was indefinitely postponed.
The Arab League imposed economic sanctions against Damascus last month after it failed to implement an agreed programme designed to end the crisis.
Since then, Syria has said it would grant access for independent monitors but with caveats that Arab officials refused to accept.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in London, said protesters yesterday vented their frustration at the league for the postponed meeting.
Organisers set the slogan for the protests as: "The Arab League is killing us - enough deadlines."