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20 killed despite pledge by Assad

Syrian security forces killed at least 20 protesters Friday despite promises by President Bashar Assad that the military operations against the 5-month-old uprising are over.

The killings, as thousands of protesters poured into the streets across Syria, suggest the autocratic leader is unwilling to stop the violence -- or not fully in control of his own regime.

Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, is facing the most serious international isolation of his rule. On Thursday, the United States and its European allies demanded he step down.

Military operations have subsided in recent days, following a fresh crackdown on major flash point cities that started at the beginning of the month to root out protesters.

But persistent gunfire and shootings, along with Friday's killings, underscore the difficulty of any kind of diplomatic pressure achieving results in the absence of outside military intervention.

Human rights groups said Assad's forces have killed nearly 2,000 people since the uprising erupted in mid-March. A high-level U.N. team recommended Thursday that the violence in Syria be referred to the International Criminal Court over possible crimes against humanity.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo, a court prosecutor, said he had received reports of atrocities in Syria but has no jurisdiction "at this stage" to open an investigation because Damascus does not recognize the court.

He said he could begin investigating at the request of the U.N. Security Council. Syria's U.N. ambassador said a U.N. humanitarian assessment team will arrive today in Damascus.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was optimistic Syrian authorities will grant it access to all detainees in the country "within weeks."

The number of protesters Friday appeared to be lower than in previous weeks, largely because of the crackdown and security presence. But amateur video posted online by activists showed thousands of protesters in various areas, some calling for Assad's departure, others for his execution.

"Bye, bye Bashar, see you in The Hague!" protesters shouted in the central city of Homs as crowds filled the streets, spurred on by the international condemnation.

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