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Mass Anti-Government Rallies Spike Across Syria

In this image from amateur video made available by the Shaam News Network and shot on Friday, Dec. 30, 2011, Arab League observers are seen at a protest in Idlib, Syria.

Large crowds of anti-government protesters poured into the streets of many Syrian towns and cities Friday, heeding calls by opposition leaders to make a show of strength, as Arab League observers pursue their mission. Government forces fired on protesters causing a number of casualties.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in the northern Syrian city of Idlib to welcome a team of Arab League observers in the country to monitor the extent of the government's crackdown on dissent.

The gathering was part of what opposition activists called Friday a “march to the central squares.”

Opposition videos showed protesters marching in more than three dozen towns and cities across the country, Some protesters chanted that Arab League observers were “ignoring their plight.”

Mideast analyst Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group said Syrians were showing a remarkable solidarity in the face of what he called "divide and rule” tactics of the government:

“What we see in Syria is the emergence of an unprecedented sense of national unity. You have a rediscovery of the country's history, a sense of solidarity among cities in Syria, which never existed prior to this crisis. So, we're really seeing a society which is quite awake now,” Harling said.

In the Damascus suburb of Douma, dozens of demonstrators were reportedly wounded after security forces opened fire on them.

Opposition activists also accused the government of using “cluster bombs” against protesters. Opposition videos from Homs showed what activists claimed were shrapnel marks caused by the weapons. The reports could not be confirmed as Syria does not allow foreign media to roam freely.

Pro-Syrian regime protesters in the flashpoint city of Homs in central Syria, Thursday, Dec. 29, 2011
Pro-Syrian regime protesters in the flashpoint city of Homs in central Syria, Thursday, Dec. 29, 2011

In Cairo, Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi said the observer mission will “last for just 19 more days.” The observers have not presented any public report of their findings of the visit that began this week and have been cautious in their few comments.

Opposition leaders have complained that the government is “duping” observers by hiding tanks and disguising security forces as civil defense or ambulance crews.

One video on opposition websites showed a woman in Homs pleading with an Arab League observer to help locate her teenage son, whom she says was kidnapped by government security forces.

Syrian government TV showed several pro-government demonstrations in Damascus, in which small crowds of government supporters chanted slogans in favor of President Bashar al-Assad.

The state-run SANA news agency says "massive crowds" of government supporters rallied in favor of national unity.

It was again, a starkly different view than was presented by opposition videos distributed on the Internet.

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