DAMASCUS, Aug 19 – Syrian forces killed at least 19 protesters as tens of thousands swarmed the streets after Friday prayers, activists said, a day after President Bashar al-Assad pledged that military assaults on civilians had been halted.
Russia and Turkey meanwhile dismissed growing calls led by US President Barack Obama for Assad to quit, offering the embattled Syrian leader rare support despite a damning UN report on his “apparent shoot to kill” policy.
But the European Union was preparing sanctions against Syria’s key oil sector, a European diplomatic source told AFP.
On the political front, a group of “revolutionary blocs” formed a coalition vowing to bring down the regime and paid tribute to more than 2,000 civilians killed in crackdown on protesters since mid-March.
Activists said that that 19 protesters were killed and many others wounded in demonstrations after Friday prayers.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 11 people, including an 11-year-old and a 72-year-old, were killed in the southern province of Daraa, epicentre of the anti-regime protests that erupted March 15.
Three others were killed in the central city of Homs and one in the Harasta suburb of Damascus.
The Observatory said security forces opened fire on protesters, also wounding 16 people, in the Ghabagheb, Inkhil, Al-Herak and Nawa in Daraa, but the official SANA news agency blamed the shooting on “armed men.”
The agency said a policeman and a civilian were killed in Ghabagheb and six security forces wounded.
Tens of thousands of people flooded streets in major Syrian towns on Friday as they emerged from the weekly Muslim prayers, with the largest anti-regime demonstration reported in Homs.
Around 20,000 were on the streets of Al-Khalidiyeh demanding the ouster of Assad, said the Observatory, which also reported rallies in the eastern oil hub of Deir Ezzor, in the northern cities of Latakia and Banias.
Some 10,000 people marched in the Kurdish-populated cities of Qamishli and Amuda, according to an activist at the scene, while other protests were took place in and around Damascus and in Hama in the centre.
The Observatory said troops and security forces deployed in several areas to prevent protests from taking place, including in Latakia where pro-regime ‘shabiha’ militias pounced on worshippers as they emerged from a city mosque.
Security forces opened fire and conducted arrests to prevent protests from spilling into streets in Damascus neighbourhoods.
Friday’s rallies put to the test a commitment given by Assad to UN chief Ban Ki-moon the previous day that his security forces have ended operations against civilians.
The Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook group, one of the drivers of the protests, had called for the demonstrations under the slogan, “Friday of the beginnings of victory.”
The civilian death toll from the security force crackdown on the protests has now passed 2,000, UN under secretary general B. Lynn Pascoe told the UN Security Council on Thursday.
And UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told members of the Security Council there was “reliable corroborative evidence” that Syrian forces are deliberately shooting anti-regime demonstrators.
Frustrated that international calls for a halt to the bloodletting were being snubbed by Damascus, US President Barack Obama on Thursday called for Assad to quit for the first time since the protests broke out.
“We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” Obama said.
His call was quickly echoed by the leaders of Britain, France and Germany while Spain followed suit on Friday.
But Russia and Turkey disagreed.
We do not share the United States and the European Union’s point of view regarding President (Bashar) al-Assad and will continue to pursue our consistent and principled stance on Syria,” the foreign ministry said in a statement in Moscow.
A government official in Ankara agreed and told AFP a call for Assad’s ouster must come from the Syrian people themselves.
“First and foremost the people of Syria must tell Assad to go. This has not been heard in the streets of Syria,” the official said. “The Syrian opposition is not united and we haven’t seen yet a collective call from Syrians to tell Assad to go, like in Egypt and Libya.”
“The EU is preparing sanctions against the petroleum sector and envisions eventually an embargo on all Syrian oil imports,” a European diplomat who requested anonymity told AFP.
European nations import most of the oil from Syria, which exported some 148,000 barrels a day in 2009, according to the US government’s Energy Information Administration.
The opposition, admitting the lack of unity, announced Friday the creation of the so-called Syrian Revolution General Commission comprising 44 “revolution blocs” due to “the dire need to unite the field, media and political efforts” of the pro-democracy movement.
Meanwhile the United Nations said that a much-delayed humanitarian mission would go to Syria this weekend after the Security Council was briefed on a shoot-to-kill policy against protesters, stadium executions and children feared killed in Syrian government custody.
A Russian delegation was also due to visit Syria for talks with Assad and members of the opposition, senator Aslambek Aslakhanov told Interfax news agency.
Meanwhile, Chris Gunness, the spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), said Friday that refugees who fled the crackdown in protest cities “are too frightened to return to their homes.”