Middle East

Syrian troops 'kill 44 protesters after Friday prayers'

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Media captionHuman rights groups say at least 850 people have been killed in weeks of demonstrations

Syrian security forces have shot dead at least 44 people as mass protests have again swept across the country after Friday prayers, activists say.

Witnesses said at least eleven were killed when shots were fired into a protest in the central city of Homs.

Deaths are also being reported at protests in other parts of the country.

The rallies come a day after US President Barack Obama called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to lead a transition to democracy or "get out".

"The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests," he said in a key policy speech about the Middle East and North Africa on Thursday.

In response, the Syrian government accused Mr Obama of meddling "in the internal affairs of the region's countries, including Syria", and said his speech amounted to "incitement".

At least 850 people have been killed in weeks of demonstrations against Mr Assad's regime, human rights groups say.

France's foreign ministry said it hoped that the EU would extend sanctions against the Syrian president at a meeting of foreign ministers on Monday. The US imposed sanctions on Mr Assad for the first time on Wednesday.

'Defiance'

Protest organisers in Homs said security forces had fired live rounds at thousands of people who had gathered in the city.

"The protests took off in Homs straight after Friday prayers from many mosques and some smaller side streets," one witness told BBC Arabic.

"The surprise today is that the security forces are resorting to several tactics to disperse the protests. These include firing shots at protesters and driving their vehicles into the middle of the protests."

Every time youthful protesters were dispersed, they would "regroup with more enthusiasm and strength in defiance of the security", the witness added.

The coastal city of Baniyas - which was subject to a crackdown by soldiers and tanks earlier this month - witnessed one of its largest demonstrations yet, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Thousands of men, women and children took to the streets, with many of the men baring their chests to show they were not armed, the organisation told the AFP news agency.

One witness said security forces were trying to disperse the protesters using gunfire and sticks.

There were reports of tear gas being fired on thousands of protesters in the city of Hama, north of Homs, and tanks storming the northern town of Maarat al-Numan, near Idlib.

Deaths were reported in Homs, Maarat al-Numan, the south-western Damascus suburb of Darayya, the southern city of Deraa - a focal point for protests - and the village of al-Sanamain, situated between Damascus and Deraa.

Reports from Syria are hard to verify independently, as foreign journalists are not allowed into the country.

Meanwhile, the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, has said it believes about 4,000 people have fled to Lebanon from Syria in recent weeks, with many of them reporting heavy bombardment of the town of Tal Kalakh.

A spokeswoman for the Syrian information ministry denied Tal Kalakh had been shelled, blaming unrest in the area on fighting between smugglers and the security forces.

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