Beirut, Lebanon -Thousands of Syrians took to the streets across the country on Friday calling for the downfall of President Bashar al-Assad, keeping up the pressure on him in the five-month-old uprising one day after an alliance of nations led by the United States publicly called on him for the first time to step down and toughened the sanctions against his government. At least 16 people were reported killed, including some soldiers who disobeyed orders to shoot at protesters.
Syrians have been demonstrating on Fridays after noon prayers since the uprising began in March, and activists on the official Facebook page for the Syrian Revolution are calling this week’s demonstrations “Friday of the beginnings of victory.”
Activists and residents reached in Syria reported shooting in several areas across the country, despite Mr. Assad’s assertion two days earlier that all military operations against the opposition had ended. They said that 13 demonstrators were killed in the southern Dara’a Province, where the first protests began five months ago, after security forces arrested and tortured high school students caught scrawling antigovernment graffiti on walls.
Among the dead in Dara’a were five army soldiers who refused to open fire on protesters, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a group of activists who document and organize protests. They also said that two people died in the suburbs of Damascus when their demonstrations came under fire and one in the restive city of Homs, Syria’s third largest and one that has seen some of the biggest demonstrations against the government of Mr. Assad.
The activists also said security forces were using live ammunition against protesters in Latakia, along the Mediterranean coast and in Homs, in central Syria, and in Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, which has only seen small protests so far. Residents also said that security forces arrested dozens of men who were leaving the Huzayfa Bin Yaman mosque in Aleppo.
Three people were also killed on Thursday, activists said, during demonstrations held after an evening prayer performed only during Ramadan, a holy month when Muslims fast from dawn to sunset.
In Deir al-Zour, in eastern Syria, where military forces began an attack on protesters two weeks ago, killing dozens, activists said that Friday’s demonstration in the town attracted a big crowd despite the heavy presence of security forces.
“Today people felt more confident,” said Maamoun, an activist in Deir al-Zour. He said that demonstrators were chanting “the people want to execute the president” and that armed men loyal to the government and known in Syria as shabeeha chased them with batons.
On Thursday, the international community called on Mr. Assad to step down in a coordinated action led by President Obama, who said in a statement released by the White House that the Syrian president’s “calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing and slaughtering his own people.” The United States also banned all imports of Syrian oil and barred American citizens from having any dealings with Mr. Assad’s regime. The top human rights official at the United Nations also released a report that accused Mr. Assad’s regime of committing atrocities in its repression of the uprising.
There was no official Syrian reaction to the international call for Mr. Assad to leave office, but the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja’afari, rejected it and accused the United States of “instigating further violence in the country, and giving the wrong message to the armed terrorist armed groups that they are under American and Western protection so that they go ahead with their insurrection and destructive activities in the country.”
An American ban on Syrian oil would not by itself be significant, but Syria would feel the effects of a European ban on oil from Syria, which exports more than a third of its annual production to Europe. In Brussels on Friday, the European Union took a significant step toward such a ban, when senior diplomats in Brussels requested that plans be drawn up to stop all imports of Syrian crude oil.
The diplomats also agreed to add 15 names of individuals or companies to the list of those already subjected to asset freezes or visa bans, and to look at ways of widening the categories of those affected.
The European Union has already imposed asset freezes and visa bans on 35 individuals and placed restrictions on trade with firms linked to the Syria suppression of dissent.