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Clashes in Syria Leave At Least 31 Dead

In this citizen journalism image made on a mobile phone, Syrian anti-government protesters gather in the coastal town of Banias, May 6, 2011

Human rights workers say clashes between Syrian security forces and protesters have left at least 31 people dead. Tens of thousands of Syrian protesters demanding the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad took to the streets in several Syrian cities Friday, despite a heavy military presence, calling it their "day of defiance."

Chanting "God is great," "Freedom" and "the people want the downfall of the regime," protesters took to the streets in large numbers in many cities following Friday prayers.

The southern city of Daraa, where the protests began seven weeks ago, was reported quiet. Some residents said they were too afraid to go to the streets after dozens were killed during demonstrations last Friday and hundreds more people were rounded up by authorities.

The Syrian military said it was beginning a withdrawal from Daraa on Thursday, its mission accomplished. But residents said Friday the pullout was not complete and there was still a military presence in and around the city.

President Assad's regime says the military crackdown is aimed at armed "terrorist" groups and infiltrators, not innocent civilians.

Separately, Human Rights Watch confirmed to VOA that democracy activist Riad Seif was arrested at a demonstration in the capital, Damascus.

Seif was a signatory to the 2005 Damascus Declaration, which called for peaceful regime change in Syria. A dozen of its authors and signatories were jailed for nearly three years, including Seif.

Also Friday, the United Nations said the Syrian government has agreed to allow a humanitarian assessment team into the country. A spokesman said the team is expected to enter Syria in the next few days.

Human rights groups say more than 600 protesters have been killed and thousands more arrested since the anti-government demonstrations began on March 15. Most foreign media have been banned from the country, so independent verification of reports has been difficult.

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