BEIRUT — Syrian security forces opened fire on thousands of protesters Friday, killing at least 13 people, wounding hundreds and forcing residents to turn mosques into makeshift hospitals in a southern city that has become a flashpoint for anti-government demonstrations, witnesses said.
The government acknowledged violence in Daraa, but said only two people died and blamed armed thugs.
One witness said he helped ferry the dead and wounded to the city's hospital, where he counted 13 corpses.
"My clothes are soaked with blood," he said by telephone from Daraa, adding that he was among thousands of people at the protest and he witnessed security forces shooting live ammunition.
Like most activists and witnesses who spoke to The Associated Press, he requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.
A nurse at the hospital said they had run out of beds; many people were being treated on the floor or in nearby mosques.
Protest organizers have called on Syrians to take to the streets every Friday for the past three weeks, demanding reform in one of the most authoritarian nations in the Middle East. The protests have rattled the regime of President Bashar Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for nearly 40 years.
The witness accounts coming out of Syria could not be independently confirmed because the regime has restricted media access to the country. Human rights groups say around 115 people have been killed in the security crackdown.
Witnesses in several other cities across Syria also reported protests Friday. An eyewitness in the coastal city of Latakia said hundreds of people took part in a largely peaceful protest Friday calling for political freedoms.
"Peaceful, peaceful!" they shouted, marching past soldiers who were deployed in force in and around the religiously mixed city where clashes two weeks ago killed 12 people. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Activists said protests also erupted in the central cities of Homs and Hama, the coastal city of Banyas, the northern city of Aleppo and outside the capital, Damascus.
A video posted by activists on Facebook showed a crowd of people in the Damascus suburb of Harasta shouting "We want Freedom!" and "The Syrian people will not be humiliated." The footage could not be independently confirmed.
The state-run News agency said a police officer and an ambulance driver were killed Friday in Daraa. The report blamed "armed men" for the violence. The government has blamed much of the unrest in recent weeks on armed thugs.
It was not clear if SANA and the eyewitness were counting the same people.
The Interior Ministry called on residents of Daraa not to provide shelter for the armed groups that opened fire on civilians and police and to provide authorities with any information they have about them.
Syria had appeared immune to the unrest sweeping the Arab world until three weeks ago, when security forces arrested a group of high school students who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall.
Protests then exploded in cities across the country.
Daraa is parched and impoverished, suffering sustained economic problems from a yearslong drought.
Assad has made a series of concessions to quell the violence, including sacking his Cabinet and firing two governors.
On Thursday, he granted citizenship to thousands of Kurds, fulfilling a decades-old demand of the country's long-ostracized minority. But the protest Friday in Amouda — a Kurdish city — suggested the population still was not satisfied.
An activist in Douma, a Damascus suburb where at least eight people were killed during protests last Friday, said he was expecting a large turnout Friday. Hundreds of activists and residents have met this week to prepare for the demonstration.
But telephone lines to Douma appeared to be cut Friday. Activists in Damascus, quoting people who came from Douma, said thousands of people were demonstrating outside the suburb's Grand Mosque.
Despite the regime's gestures, many Syrian activists remain skeptical about the regime's concessions and have called for much more concrete reforms, such as lifting the state of emergency, which has been in place since 1963 and gives the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge.
AP writers Zeina Karam in Beirut and Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Cairo contributed to this report.
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