Deaths, High-Profile Arrest Reported On Syrian 'Day Of Defiance'

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Syrian authorities have reportedly detained a prominent opposition leader and shot dead protesters, as thousands gathered for a nationwide "day of defiance" against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Security forces arrested Riad Seif at an antigovernment rally in the Syrian capital of Damascus, according to his daughter and human rights campaigners.

The 64-year-old Seif, a cancer sufferer, has spent a total of eight years in prison on charges of "weakening national morale" widely seen as retaliation for his criticism of Assad's autocratic rule.

Witnesses say the rally in Damascus drew several hundred people after Friday Prayers. A video clip posted on the Internet today purported to show the protest.

Security forces reportedly opened fire at the protest, although it was not immediately clear if there were any casualties.

In Homs, the country's third-largest city and the scene of deadly police clashes last month, witnesses say Syrian security forces shot dead five demonstrators and injured scores of others.

Reports from Tel, north of the capital, said security forces there had also fired at a crowd of several hundred protesters, injuring several.

Protests were reported in a number of other cities, including the coastal town of Banias, where more than 5,000 protesters carried olive branches and Syrian flags.

Tanks had been deployed in several cities across the country ahead of the planned rallies.

Residents in Daraa, the cradle of the uprising, said their city was still under siege despite the government's pledge on May 5 to withdraw troops from the streets following an 11-day military operation to crush dissent.

Reports are difficult to independently verify since foreign journalists have been barred from entering the country.

U.S. Denounces 'Barbaric' Response

The revolt, inspired by similar uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, erupted in mid-March with demands for greater freedoms and an end to endemic corruption.

Angered by the brutal government crackdown on demonstrators, which the United States has denounced as "barbaric," many Syrians are now calling for Assad's overthrow.

Assad, in turn, has blamed "armed terrorist groups" for instigating the violence and appears determined to quell the revolt, which poses the biggest challenge to his family's 40-year rule.

Security forces have repeatedly opened fire on protesters in recent weeks. Rights groups say at least 560 protesters and some 100 soldiers have been killed so far.

Thousands of people have reportedly also been detained and beaten, including elderly people, women, and children.

The violence culminated last week when forces loyal to Assad fired at protesters who had rallied in several cities after Friday Prayers, killing more than 60 people according to rights groups.

The United States and the European Union have warned Syria of penalties and isolation over its response to the protests.

Diplomats said the European Union could reach a preliminary agreement on imposing sanctions on Syria's ruling elite as soon as today, although it remains unclear whether Assad would be included.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
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