DAMASCUS, Syria — Troops opened fire on protesters in cities across Syria and pro- and antigovernment crowds clashed in the capital 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 took root in Syria as an eight-day uprising centered in Daraa in the south expanded into protests by tens of thousands in several cities. The protests posed the biggest challenge in decades to the iron-fisted rule in the country of nearly 24 million.
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. Their accounts could not be independently confirmed because of Syria's restrictions on the press.
The regime of President Bashar Assad had seemed immune from the Mideast's three-month wave of popular uprising. His security forces, which have long silenced dissent, snuffed out attempts at protests last month.
Syrians also have fearful memories of the brutal crackdown unleashed by his father, Hafez Assad, when Muslim fundamentalists in the central town of Hama tried an uprising in 1982: Thousands were killed and parts of the city were flattened.
Bashar 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 seemed to test the latter track, offering 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 antiregime graffiti last week set off a cycle of growing demonstrations and increasingly violent government crackdowns.
The government said 34 had been slain in Daraa before Friday, while the U.N. human rights office put the figure at 37. Activists said it was as high as 100.
Thousands poured into Daraa's central Assad Square after Friday prayers, chanting "Freedom! Freedom!" and waving Syrian flags and olive branches, witnesses said. Some attacked a bronze statue of Hafez Assad. One witness told the AP that they tried to set it on fire, and another said they tried to pull it down.
Troops responded with heavy gunfire, according to a resident who said he saw two bodies and many wounded people brought to Daraa's main hospital.
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!"
After dark, troops opened fire on protesters in the Damascus suburb of Maadamiyeh, a witness told the AP. An activist in contact with people there said three were killed. Activists also reported that troops opened fire on protesters in Syria's main Mediterranean port, Latakia; the central city of Homs; the southern village of Sanamein; Douma, outside the capital; Raqqa in the north, and Zabadani in the west
The White House urged the government to cease attacks on protesters, and Turkey said its neighbor should enact reforms to meet legitimate demands.