Four months after anti-government demonstrations began in Syria, tens of thousands of protesters marched Friday demanding the release of scores of people jailed during the uprising and calling for an end to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Witnesses and activists in several towns reported that security forces fired at protesters, with at least 32 killed and several more injured.
In an appeal issued over the Internet site Facebook, activists called on Syrians to take to the streets to mark a day of “freedom of the prisoners”.
Many heeded the call. Large turnouts were reported in several Syrian cities including Homs, Hama, Daraa and this one in the northern Damascus suburb of Harasta.
Thousands of young men in the town could be seen in a video posted on YouTube carrying banners calling for freeing prisoners marched defiantly down narrow streets alongside a long, unfurled Syrian flag.
Human Rights Watch's Emergencies Director Peter Bouckaert spoke with VOA by Skype from Geneva. He says HRW estimates some 17,000 people have been detained since the uprisings began exactly four months ago.
“There is very little information about their fate in custody," said Bouckaert. "The families have not been told where they have been taken. And from those who have been released it is a very dire picture. We have documented many cases of torture and very brutal beatings, in what are now extremely over-crowded detention facilities.”
Western nations have turned up the pressure on President Assad to stop the government's bloody crackdown on protesters and implement promised reforms.
Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the Syrian leader is not “indispensable.”
While the U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, in an interview published Thursday, called on President Assad and his government to “take hard decisions” and move toward reform or, he warned, "the street will wash them away".
Last Friday, Ambassador Ford and his French counterpart attended a large demonstration in the flashpoint city of Hama, angering Syrian authorities and leading to retribution from a pro-government mob on the U.S. and French embassies.
In the wake of those events, HRW's Bouckaert said the Syrian government has told foreign diplomats they are no longer allowed to travel outside Damascus without permission.
He adds that the government's efforts to intimidate protestors is not working.
“From what we are seeing the momentum is still building, in terms of the number of people who are coming out to these protests, the amount of cities which are involved in the protests, and also the fact that protests and now very much spreading beyond the usual Friday protests and also taking place on other days," he said.
President Assad's regime says the military crackdown is aimed at armed “terrorist” groups and infiltrators, not innocent civilians. Human Rights Groups say more than 1,600 protesters have been killed since the pro-democracy rallies began. Most foreign media has been banned from the country, making independent verification of reports difficult.
Meanwhile, across the border in the Jordanian capital, Amman, police armed with batons roughly dispersed demonstrators demanding government reform in their country.
The unrest erupted after hundreds of people took to the streets, where they urged the government to meet their demands for change. At least 10 people were wounded in the confrontations.