BEIRUT, Lebanon — A day of violent mass demonstrations across Syria's cities, towns and villages were met with indiscriminate gunfire by security forces loyal to President Bashar Assad on Friday, killing at least 88 and hardening the divide between a regime determined to keep power and increasingly fearless protesters demanding the overthrow of the government.
Tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets of Syrian cities after weekly prayers on a day dubbed "Great Friday" by protest leaders.
Assad's armed forces responded by firing volleys of bullets and tear gas into the crowds, despite government reforms implemented just a day earlier to allow peaceful protests.
"Can you hear it? Listen," the Los Angeles Times quoted a witness reached by telephone as saying from the city of Douma, where a barrage of gunfire and cries of pain and terror could be heard. "This is a war. The regime has declared a war on the Syrian people."
Chants in the background grew louder even as gunfire continued.
"The people want the overthrow of the regime," the protesters cried out, using the provocative slogan borrowed from revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, which inspired a wave of unrest against dictatorial regimes throughout the Arab world.
Syrian activists said at least 88 people were killed, according to Damascus human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh, who collected the names of dead protesters.
Among the dead were a 70-year-old man and two boys ages 7 and 10, Amnesty International said. In the southern town of Izraa, a man ran carrying the body of a young boy, whose hair was matted with blood from a gaping wound, as another child wept and shouted, "My brother!" Footage of the scene was posted on the protest movement's main Facebook pace.
In other towns, protesters scattered for cover from sniper bullets, then dragged corpses through the streets. Mobile phone images showed the bodies lined up on the floor inside buildings.
The rallies, most marching out from mosques after Friday's noon Muslim prayers, erupted in towns and cities stretching along the breadth of the country, including in at least two suburbs of the capital, Damascus.
The unrest threatens the stability of a key nation that borders Israel, is locked in a strategic alliance with Iran, and serves as a conduit for weapons and political support to Hezbollah in Lebanon and militant groups in the Palestinian territories. U.S. and European officials, despite their differences with Assad and his late father, Hafez, have long considered the clan preferable to Islamists believed to have a powerful political presence in Syria.
All signs pointed to the crisis growing graver, bloodier and deeper. The street protests, which used to break out only on Fridays, are now a daily occurrence in the tightly policed nation of 21 million.
Hundreds of people have been killed so far by Syrian security forces answering to Assad, who is commander in chief as well as president, in five weeks of unrest.
But protesters, knowing they risk being killed, nevertheless have been flooding the streets, challenging the regime. Their simple calls for reform have, over the last few weeks of killings, spiraled into a roar demanding regime change.
At the same time, security forces have grown more brutal and the alternative reality portrayed on state media more divergent from the violence on the streets.
Official Syrian state media Friday downplayed the bloodiest day of civil unrest in the country's recent history as limited. Security forces, the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported, "used water hoses and tear gas to settle scuffles that erupted between demonstrators and citizens and to protect private properties."
The chasm of mistrust between the government and protesters has become so wide that activists now sit vigil outside hospital morgues to ensure the authorities don't snatch corpses of those killed to prevent politically charged funeral marches.