BEIRUT — Witnesses say tens of thousands of Syrians are holding protests in cities across Syria.
The protesters on the outskirts of Damascus on Friday chanted: "The people want the downfall of the regime." It's the same rallying cry that was heard during the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.
Friday's protests could be a major test of whether President Bashar Assad's recent promises of reform will quell the uprising.
Protests were reported outside the capital, in the southern town of Daraa and in the predominantly Kurdish northeast. The accounts could not be independently confirmed because Syria has expelled journalists and restricted access to trouble spots.
Syrian security forces have launched a deadly crackdown on demonstrations, killing more than 200 people.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian authorities set up checkpoints and deployed soldiers and security forces Friday ahead of protests that could be a major test of whether President Bashar Assad's promises of reform will quell the monthlong uprising.
Activists said Friday's protests will be the biggest rallies yet against the authoritarian regime led by Assad, who inherited power from his father 11 years ago in one of the most authoritarian countries in the Middle East.
The president has been trying to defuse the protests by launching a bloody crackdown along with a series of concessions, most recently lifting emergency laws that gave authorities almost boundless powers of surveillance and arrest.
He also has fulfilled a decades-old demand by granting citizenship to thousands among Syria's long-ostracized Kurdish minority, fired local officials, released detainees and formed a new government.
But many protesters said the concessions have come too late — and that Assad does not deserve the credit.
"The state of emergency was brought down, not lifted," prominent Syrian activist Suhair Atassi, who was arrested several times in the past, wrote on her Twitter page. "It is a victory as a result of demonstrations, protests and the blood of martyrs who called for Syria's freedom."
The protest movement has crossed a significant threshold in recent days, with increasing numbers now seeking nothing less than the downfall of the regime. The security crackdown has only emboldened protesters, who are enraged over the deaths of more than 200 people over five weeks.
On Friday. witnesses said security forces in uniform and plainclothes set up checkpoints around the Damascus suburb of Douma, checking peoples identity cards and preventing nonresidents from going in. The witnesses, who requested anonymity for fear of government reprisals, said they plan to demonstrate in Douma after Friday prayers.
The largest protest last Friday was in Douma, where witnesses said 100,000 people marched toward central Damascus. It was a bold move by a protest movement that has mostly stayed outside Damascus so far.
Friday has become the main day of the week for protests across the Arab world.
On Thursday, Syria deployed soldiers and armed security agents in plainclothes in the tense central city of Homs, presumably to establish their positions ahead of the rallies.
Amnesty International urged the Syrian authorities to show restraint Friday, saying the government's response to the protests will test its sincerity in undertaking reforms.
"If government security forces resort to the same extremely violent tactics they have used over the past month, the consequences could be exceedingly grave," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International's director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Syria stands in the middle of the most volatile conflicts in region because of its alliances with militant groups like Lebanon's Hezbollah and with Shiite powerhouse Iran. That has given Damascus a pivotal role in most of the flashpoint issues of the region, from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran's widening influence.
If the regime in Syria wobbles, it also throws into disarray the U.S. push for engagement with Damascus, part of Washington's plan to peel the country away from its allegiance to Hamas, Hezbollah and Tehran.
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