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Syrian Rights Group Says 44 Killed in Friday Protests

An image grab taken from a video posted on YouTube, May 20, 2011, shows a Syrian soldier pointing his rifle and firing at anti-regime protesters during a demonstration in Hama, north of Damascus

A Syrian rights group has raised the estimated death toll from a Friday crackdown on anti-government protests in the country to 44.

The National Organization for Human Rights said Saturday that most of the deaths took place in the western province of Idlib and the central region of Homs, after Syrian security forces cracked down on demonstrators.

On Friday, news organizations quoted witnesses in several cities who said security forces used live ammunition on demonstrators who took to the streets to rally against President Bashar al-Assad's government.

Syria, meanwhile, blamed armed groups for the violence and said 17 civilians, police and security forces had been killed in Idlib and Homs. The state news agency said the armed groups also attacked police stations. The government has repeatedly blamed the unrest on armed gangs.

The accounts cannot be independently verified as Syria has banned foreign journalists from the country.

Friday's violence came a day after U.S. President Barack Obama said President Assad must either lead a transition to democracy or "get out of the way."

Syrian rights activists say more than 850 civilians have been killed since mid-March, when protesters began calling for democratic reforms and Mr. Assad's ouster. Authorities have arrested at least 7,000 people as part of a government crackdown.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and AFP.

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