Thousands of Syrians flooded the streets across the country Friday, defying a government crackdown on the two-month uprising against the country's authoritarian regime. Human rights activists said security forces opened fire, killing at least 27 people, including a 10-year-old boy.
The clashes indicate neither side appears able to tip the scales in the uprising. Assad's forces have waged a relentless crackdown on the opposition, but protesters continue to face down security forces with marches seeking to break the Syrian leader's authoritarian rule.
Human rights groups say more than 850 people have been killed in the clashes and clampdowns.
Witnesses reported protests Friday in the central cities of Homs and Hama, as well as the Mediterranean ports of Banias and Latakia.
Friday's death toll was reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The group said 10 people were killed in Homs, 11 in Maaret al-Numan, one in Latakia, two in the northeastern town of Deir el-Zour, one each in the southern villages of Sanamein and Harra and one in the Damascus suburb of Daraya. A 10-year-old boy was among the dead in Homs, human rights activist Mustafa Osso said.
'They are arresting anyone they see on the street.' —A resident of Banias, Syria
In Banias, a witness said security forces dispersed protesters with gunfire and sticks. Several people were wounded from beatings, including a woman who was taking video of the march. Another Banias resident said authorities imposed a curfew after breaking up the protest.
"They are arresting anyone they see on the street," he said.
Like most witnesses contacted by The Associated Press, the residents asked that their names not be used in fear of reprisals from the government.
Last week, mass arrests and heavy security kept crowds below previous levels seen during the uprising, suggesting Assad's sweeping campaign of intimidation was working. But the marches Friday suggested that opposition forces could be trying to regroup.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, directory of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Friday's protests were more widespread and larger than the previous week.
"There were large numbers from the south to the north to the suburbs, and there were protests in besieged cities and towns," he said. "Despite the heavy security and military presence in almost all these places, people staged protests calling for freedom. This is very significant."
Also Friday, leading Sunni Muslim cleric Sheik Karim Rajeh, the imam of Damascus's Al-Hassan mosque, said he will no longer lead Friday sermons because security forces have been preventing people from going to prayers. The weekly demonstrations mostly kick off after prayers.
Syria has banned foreign journalists and prevented local reporters from covering trouble spots, making it nearly impossible to independently verify witness accounts.
Canada considers sanctions
Friday's death toll was reported by one of the Local Co-ordination Committees in Syria, which help organize the protests.
Syria is coming under increasing pressure to end the crackdown, but the government has brushed off the criticism and new U.S. sanctions that have targeted Assad and senior aides.
Canada is also considering imposing sanctions against Syria. The new minister of foreign affairs, John Baird, and his department are preparing various options for sanctions, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's spokesman said Friday.
Meanwhile, a senior official in Brussels says European Union foreign ministers will consider next week whether to tighten sanctions against the authoritarian regime in Syria. New sanctions will be considered, "since repression is continuing and even increasing in Syria," the senior EU official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity in exchange for revealing confidential information.
In an address Thursday on the Arab world uprising, U.S. President Barack Obama said that Assad should lead his country to democracy or "get out of the way."
Syria's official news agency said Obama's speech amounted to "incitement." Syria has blamed the unrest on armed thugs and foreign agitators.