BEIRUT // Syrian security forces opened fire on anti-government demonstrations Friday, killing at least four people as thousands took to the streets despite the near-certainty they will face gunfire, tear gas and stun guns, human rights activists and witnesses said.
The 10-week protest movement in Syria has evolved from a disparate movement demanding reforms to a resilient uprising that is now seeking President Bashar Assad's ouster. On Friday, protests erupted in areas including the capital, Damascus, the coastal city of Banias, the central city of Homs and elsehwere.
Human rights groups say more than 1,000 people have been killed since the revolt began in mid-March - a death toll that has enraged and motivated protesters.
The Local Coordination Committees in Syria, which help organize the protests, said four people were killed early Friday in the southern village of Dael.
A witness in Damascus, who asked to be identified only by his nickname, Abu Moustafa, said up to 1,500 people were chanting for the downfall of the regime in the Qaboun neighborhood. More than 20 buses carrying soldiers and security forces arrived on the scene, raising tensions, he said.
Another witness in the central city of Homs - the site of some of the largest demonstrations in recent weeks - said only a few hundred people were marching there because security forces began circulating rumors Thursday night that there would be a massive security crackdown.
"So far the protests are small and cautious," he said, asking that his name not be used for fear of reprisals. "All entrances to the city center are completely closed off with checkpoints and barriers and there are security patrols everywhere."
Also Friday, human rights activist Mustafa Osso said Syrian security forces opened fire at demonstrators in the northeastern town of Deir el-Zour, but it was not clear if there were casualties.
He added that 5,000 people demonstrated in the northeastern city of Qamishli, while more than 3,000 protested in the village of Amouda and 2,000 marched in the nearby town of Derbasiya.
Assad appears determined to crush the revolt, which is posing the most serious challenge to his family's 40-year rule. The harsh crackdown has triggered international outrage and U.S. and European sanctions, including an EU assets freeze and a visa ban on Assad and nine members of his regime.
Assad has acknowledged the need for reforms, offering overtures of change in recent weeks while cracking down on demonstrations. Among his overtures to the protesters was abolishing the country's reviled state of emergency, in place for decades, which gave the regime unchecked powers of surveillance and arrest.
Also Friday, Assad was quoted in Lebanon's daily As-Safir newspaper as promising there will be "no going back" on reforms. He did not elaborate.
Many activists in Syria have been opting for nighttime protests and candlelight vigils in recent days, aiming for a time when the security presence has thinned out.
Other demonstrations were reported overnight and early Friday in the coastal areas of Latakia, Banias and Jableh, the central cities of Hama and Homs, and the northern province of Idlib.
On Thursday, the Syrian opposition called on the army to join the uprising against Assad's regime, saying regime elements are targeting protesters and troops. The opposition said on Facebook that protests planned for Friday will honor the "Guardians of the Nation," a reference to the army.
The call appears to be an effort to break a stalemate after nearly 10 weeks of protests. During the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, the armed forces broke with the regimes and sided with the protesters.
The regime blames the unrest on "armed groups," not reform-seekers.
The protests in Syria are raising concerns that the unrest could spill over into neighboring Lebanon.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Committee for Human Rights said Friday that a leading opposition figure, 86-year-old Shibli al-Aisamy, a defector from Assad's ruling Baath Party, went missing along with his wife in Lebanon. The rights group urged Lebanese authorities not to hand him over to Syria.
A Lebanese security official confirmed that al-Aisamy disappeared Tuesday after leaving a home he keeps in the mountain town of Aley. The official said a search is continuing to find al-Aisamy, who also holds Yemeni citizenship.
Syria dominated Lebanon for nearly three decades until after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a crime that many have blamed on Syria.
Syria has always denied any responsibility for the killing.
Syrian troops were forced to pull out that year under local and international pressure.