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Syrian troops fire on protesters, kill 20

Syrian troops opened fire on protesters in the restive southern city of Daraa on Friday, shooting crowds that set fire to a bronze statue of the country's late president, a resident told The Associated Press.

The resident, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said heavy gunfire could be heard in the city centre and witnesses had reported several casualties.

An activist in Damascus in touch with eyewitnesses in the village of Sanamein, near Daraa, said troops there opened fire on demonstrators trying to march to Daraa. He said there had been witness reports of fatalities, some claiming as many as 20 slain, but those could not be independently confirmed.

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Syrian security forces killed 20 people, a witness told Al Jazeera television on Friday.

"There are more than 20 martyrs .... they [security forces]opened fire haphazardly," the witness said.

Thousands of Syrians took to the streets Friday demanding reforms and mourning dozens of protesters who were killed during a violent, weeklong crackdown that has brought extraordinary pressure on the country's autocratic regime, activists and witnesses said.

Syrian security men seized dozens of people who staged a brief pro-democracy march in Damascus on Friday.

Abut 1,000 people rallied on Friday in the town of Tel, just north of the Syrian capital Damascus, and denounced two relatives of President Bashar al-Assad as "thieves," witnesses said

Protest also erupted in the city of Hamah, the scene of 1982 attack by security forces that killed thousands.

Deraa, the main city of southern Syria's drought-parched agricultural heartland, has become a flashpoint for protests in a country whose leadership stands unafraid of using extreme violence to quash internal unrest. The coming days will be a crucial test of the surge of popular discontent that has unseated autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt and threatens to push several others from power.

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Sheltering in Deraa's Roman-era old city, the protesters have persisted through seven days of increasing violence by security forces, but have not inspired significant unrest in other parts of the country.

On Friday, demonstrations took place in Deraa and throughout the country in what organizers called a "Day of Dignity."

But journalists who tried to enter Deraa's Old City - where most of the violence took place - were escorted out of town Friday by two security vehicles.

"As you can see, everything is back to normal and it is over," an army major, standing in front of the ruling Baath party head office in Deraa, told journalists before they were led out of the city.

By early afternoon, tens of thousands, many of them coming from nearby villages, gathered in Deraa's central Assad Square, chanting pro-democracy slogans such as "freedom, freedom," a resident said over the telephone.

He said the demonstrators carried Syrian flags and olive branches. The resident, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said more than 50,000 people were protesting. The crowd chanted against presidential adviser, Buthaina Shaaban, who on Thursday announced government measures to improve the standard of living in Deraa.

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After the Friday prayers in the village of Dael, near Deraa, men on motorcycles and cars honked their horns while several hundred men marched, some of them carrying Syrian flags and chanting: "Dael and Deraa will not be humiliated!"

Plainclothes security agents watched without interfering.

Scores of people were gathering in surrounding villages in what appeared to be preparation to march to Deraa. But Syrian soldiers deployed along the highway, apparently to prevent such a march.

A human rights activist, quoting witnesses, said thousands of people were gathering in the town of Douma outside the capital, Damascus, pledging support for the people of Deraa. The activists asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.

In the capital, about 200 people near the central Marjeh Square shouted "Our souls, our blood we sacrifice for you Deraa!" and "Freedom, freedom!"

Security forces dispersed the crowd by chasing them away, beating some with batons and detaining others, an activist said, asking that his name not be published for fear of reprisals by the government.

The activist also said he was hearing reports of gatherings in the coastal city of Latakia, the northern city of Raqqa and Zabadani in the west.

Earlier Friday, security forces appeared to be trying to reduce tension in Deraa by dismantling checkpoints and ensuring there was no visible army presence on the streets for the first time since last Friday, when the protests began.

Rattled by the unrest, the Syrian government Thursday pledged to consider lifting some of the Mideast's most repressive laws in an attempt to stop the weeklong uprising from spreading and threatening its nearly 50-year rule.

But the promises were immediately rejected by many activists who called for demonstrations around the country on Friday in response to a crackdown that protesters say killed dozens of anti-government marchers in Deraa.

"We will not forget the martyrs of Deraa," a resident told The Associated Press by telephone. "If they think this will silence us they are wrong."

President Bashar Assad, a close ally of Iran and its regional proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, has promised increased freedoms for discontented citizens and increased pay and benefits for state workers - a familiar package of incentives offered by other nervous Arab regimes in recent weeks.

Presidential adviser Buthaina Shaaban also said the Baath party would study ending a state of emergency that it put in place after taking power in 1963.

The emergency laws, which have been a feature of many Arab countries, allow people to be arrested without warrants and imprisoned without trial. Human rights groups say violations of other basic liberties are rife in Syria, with torture and abuse common in police stations, detention centres and prisons, and dissenters regularly imprisoned for years without due process.

Mr. Assad has come under criticism for his handling of the protests. The United States described the shootings of protesters as "brutal."

"For now, this remains a geographically isolated tragedy. But it also constitutes an ominous precedent with widespread popular resonance that could soon be repeated elsewhere," the International Crisis Group think-tank said.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday that Syria should follow the example of Egypt, where the army held fire and helped the people overthrow the rule of Hosni Mubarak.

"I would say that what the Syrian government is confronting is in fact the same challenge that faces so many governments across the region, and that is the unmet political and economic grievances of their people," Mr. Gates said.

The death toll from the weeklong crackdown was unclear and could not be independently confirmed. Mr. Shaaban says 34 people had been killed in the conflict.

With files from Reuters

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