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Huge protests grip Syria; 14 killed in clashes

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded cities around Syria on Friday in what activists described as the largest outpouring against the regime of President Bashar Assad and a powerful message of the opposition's resolve. At least 14 people were killed in various clashes, activists said.

The wildfire rage — flaring in dozens of places at the same time — further strained the resources of Assad's security forces and military as they also try to choke off a refugee wave into Turkey.

The centerpiece of the latest protests — the central city of Hama — brings further complications for the government. Security forces moved outside Hama in early June after shootings that left 65 people dead, and now the streets appear fully under the sway of the opposition with an estimated 300,000 people gathering Friday in the central square, activists said.

Crowd estimates and other details cannot be independently verified. The government has banned most foreign media from the country.

But the protest surge Friday appeared to dwarf recent weeks as Assad's forces tried to wear down the opposition. Syrian rights groups say more than 1,400 people have been killed, most of them unarmed protesters, since mid March.

The regime disputes the toll, blaming "armed thugs" and foreign conspirators for the unrest that has posed the most serious challenge to the Assad family's 40-year ruling dynasty in Syria.

In Hama, antigovernment crowds defiantly staked their claim to the city — which carries important symbolism to the opposition. In 1982, Assad's late father, Hafez Assad, stormed the city to crush an uprising, leaving between 10,000 and 25,000 people dead, rights groups say.

Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso estimated 300,000 people joined the rally in Hama without any sign of security forces, which remained outside the city and appeared unwilling to risk major bloodshed again.

It also could reflect fatigue in Assad's core troops and the need to concentrate on what officials consider strategic fronts. Assad's elite forces have waged nearly nonstop crackdowns around the country as new protests emerged.

In Lithuania, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on Assad's regime to either begin a credible political reform process or "continue to see increasingly organized resistance."

Huge protests grip Syria; 14 killed in clashes 07/01/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 1, 2011 10:53pm]
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