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Syrian unrest expands; troops fire on protesters

Troops opened fire on protesters in cities across Syria and pro- and anti-government crowds clashed in the capital's historic old city as one of the Mideast's most repressive regimes sought to put down demonstrations that exploded nationwide Friday demanding reform.

The upheaval sweeping the region has taken root in Syria as an eight-day uprising centered on a rural southern town dramatically expanded into protests by tens of thousands in multiple cities. The once-unimaginable scenario posed the biggest challenge in decades to Syria's iron-fisted rule.

Protesters wept over the bloodied bodies of slain comrades, and crowds chanted anti-government slogans, then fled as gunfire erupted, according to footage posted online.

Security forces shot to death more than 15 people in at least six cities and villages, including a suburb of the capital, Damascus, witnesses told the Associated Press.

The regime of President Bashar Assad, an ally of Iran and supporter of militant groups around the region, had seemed immune from the Middle East's three-month wave of popular uprisings. His security forces, which have long silenced the slightest signs of dissent, quickly snuffed out smaller attempts at protests last month.

Assad now faces the same dilemma confronted by the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain -- ratchet up violence or offer concessions. A day earlier, his government had offered to consider lifting draconian emergency laws and promising increased pay and benefits for state workers.

As massive crowds rejected the offers, the worst violence appeared centered around Daraa, where the arrest of a group of young men for spraying anti-regime graffiti last week set off a cycle of growing demonstrations and increasingly violent government crackdowns.

The Syrian government said 34 had been slain in Daraa before Friday, while the U.N. human rights office put the figure at 37.

Thousands poured into Daraa's central Assad Square after Friday prayers, many from nearby villages, chanting "Freedom! Freedom!" and waving Syrian flags and olive branches, witnesses said. Some attacked a bronze statue of former ruler Hafez Assad, Bashar's father.

Troops responded with heavy gunfire, according to a resident.

In Damascus, the heart of Bashar Assad's rule, protests and clashes broke out in multiple neighborhoods as crowds of regime opponents marched and thousands of Assad loyalists drove in convoys, shouting, "Bashar, we love you!"

The two sides battled, whipping each other with leather belts, in the old city of Damascus.

About two miles away, central Umayyad Square was packed with demonstrators who traded punches and hit each other with sticks from Syrian flags, according to Associated Press reporters at the scene.

Troops opened fire on more than 1,000 people marching in Syria's main Mediterranean port, Latakia. One activist told the AP that witnesses saw four slain protesters in a hospital.

Another was reported killed in the central city of Homs, where hundreds of people demonstrated in support of Daraa and demanded reforms, he said.

Demonstrators in the southern village of Sanamein tried to march to Daraa in support of the protesters, but were met by troops who opened fire, said an activist in Damascus in touch with witnesses there. He said the witnesses reported as many as 20 fatalities.

Meanwhile, in Yemen where protesters have demanded his ouster, President Ali Abdullah Saleh told tens of thousands of supporters Friday outside his presidential palace in the capital of Sana that he is ready to step down but only if he can leave the country in "safe hands."

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