BEIRUT — Tens of thousands of Syrians braved tear gas and gunfire to protest across the country Friday, vowing to storm Damascus to oust President Bashar Assad as the European Union increased pressure on the regime by imposing sanctions on his wife and other close relatives.
Security forces deployed in many cities to disperse protests, but opposition groups reported fewer protester deaths than in past weeks. Activists said more than 20 people were killed nationwide in clashes.
International condemnation and high-level diplomacy have failed to stop the year-old Syria crisis, which the United Nations says has killed more than 8,000 people, many of them civilian protesters.
Friday's sanctions bring to 13 the sets imposed by the EU to try to compel the regime to halt its violent crackdown on dissent. The United States and others have also imposed sanctions. Previous measures were aimed at Syrian companies and Assad himself.
Those imposed Friday targeted Asma Assad, Syria's British-born first lady, banning her from traveling to EU countries and freezing assets there. They also included the president's mother, sister, sister-in-law and eight government ministers.
In Geneva, the U.N. Human Rights Council blasted Syria's crackdown and extended the mandate of a U.N. expert panel tasked with reporting on alleged abuses in the country. A resolution passed by the 47-member body condemned "widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms perpetrated" by Syrian authorities, including summary executions, torture and sexual abuse of detainees and children.
UNICEF reported Friday that at least 500 children have been killed in the conflict, while hundreds more have been injured, detained or abused. The U.N. children's agency said schools have closed and health centers have shut down or become too dangerous for families to reach.
Also Friday, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano granted temporary immigration status to Syrians in the United States, sparing them from having to return home, in a new sign that Washington believes security conditions in Syria are going from bad to worse.
Under the measure, Syrians already in the United States will be eligible for temporary protected status. Officials estimated that 2,500 to 3,000 Syrians in the United States would be eligible for the status. Most are here legally, officials said.