BEIRUT, Lebanon – Security forces in Syria fired on protesters seeking to break the military’s siege of the restive town of Dara’a Friday, killing at least 16 people, as thousands of Syrians throughout the country took to the streets in what organizers had proclaimed a “Friday of Rage” against the government’s fierce crackdown of a six-week uprising, witnesses and activists said.
The bloodletting in Dara’a was the worst on what became another violent Friday, repeating a cycle that has emerged as a fixture of the greatest challenge to four decades of the Assad family’s rule. After noon prayers each week, demonstrators have poured into the streets, only to face the determination of the government to disperse them, usually by force.
Residents and activists painted a wrenching portrait of the scene in Dara’a, a poor town in southern Syria near the Jordanian border where protests last month helped galvanize nationwide demonstrations. The military stormed the town Monday, effectively occupying it, and the hardships – shortages of food, water and even baby formula, in addition to dozens of deaths that were reported – have become a rallying cry, unleashing solidarity protests in other towns and neighboring countries.
Residents said hundreds, perhaps thousands of Syrians from outside the town, tried to march there, either to break the siege or to bring in food and medicine. As they approached, reportedly carrying olive branches and white sheets to signal their peacefulness, security forces opened fire.
“There was a lot of screaming,” said Wissam Tarif, executive director of Insan, a human rights group, citing the accounts of residents there. “It was a massacre.”
“The protesters were just trying to get here,” added a resident, Abdullah al-Hariri.
The Syrian military said in another incident, four soldiers were killed by what it called terrorists at a checkpoint there earlier in the day. Two others were captured.
There were conflicting reports on the number of civilians killed. Mr. Tarif said a nearby hospital had received 16 bodies and many wounded. Razan Zeitouneh, an activist with the Syrian Human Rights Information Link in Damascus, put the toll at 19 and provided names.
She said four others were killed in a wave of protests that gathered in dozens of towns and villages, from the Kurdish east and the Mediterranean coast to the capital Damascus, a symbol of President Bashar al-Assad’s 11-year rule.
“With our blood, with our souls, we will sacrifice for you, Dara’a,” demonstrators chanted in Homs, the site of some of the biggest protests so far.
Others simply chanted, “Bye, bye, Bashar. Have a good night.”
The nationwide turnout Friday was seen as a test of whether the government’s crackdown on Dara’a would dissuade demonstrators from returning to the streets after noon prayers. Last Friday, at least 112 people were killed in what remains the uprising’s bloodiest day.
The sheer breadth of the demonstrations Friday and the willingness of residents to march on Dara’a seemed to signal a new dynamic in the uprising. As much as calls for freedom and an end to Mr. Assad’s rule, the movement seems to be feeding off its own symbols and legitimacy, as protesters’ anger grows over the suffering inflicted on Dara’a and the deaths of more than 450 protesters nationwide – by activists’ count – since last month.
“I’m amazed,” Mr. Tarif said. “People are in the streets. I can’t believe it.”