By ELIZABETH A. KENNEDY and ZEINA KARAM, Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian forces used live fire, tear gas and clubs to beat back tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets across the country Friday in powerful and often jubilant displays of defiance. But a U.N.-brokered truce largely held up without the widespread, bloody offensives that have pushed the nation toward civil war.
Activists said security forces killed at least six people, a lower-than-usual toll. The rallies, described as some of the largest in months, stretched from the suburbs of Damascus to the central province of Hama, Idlib in the north and the southern province of Daraa, where the uprising began in March 2011.
"Come on, Bashar, leave!" the crowd shouted in Daraa, linking arms and stomping their feet to the beat of a drum in a traditional Arab folk dance, according to a video posted online by activists.
The protests might have been far larger had President Bashar Assad's regime not violated a key aspect of the truce by keeping troops, tanks and snipers in population centers instead of pulling them back to barracks. The presence of plainclothes agents of the feared Mukhabarat security service also had a chilling effect on some of the gatherings in Damascus, the capital, and elsewhere.
The demonstrations were a critical test of the cease-fire, which went into effect at dawn Thursday, because they challenged the government's commitment to avoid the kind of attacks that have made Syria one of the bloodiest conflicts of the Arab Spring revolts.
Regime forces tried to block protesters from occupying main squares out of fear they will form a sit-in akin to Cairo's Tahrir Square, where hundreds of thousands of people camped out for days in an extraordinary scene that drove longtime Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak from power.
Many world leaders expressed doubt that the truce would endure in a country where 9,000 people have been killed during the 13-month uprising, according to U.N. figures.
"I don't believe Bashar Assad is sincere," French President Nicholas Sarkozy told French television station i-Tele on Friday. Observers must be sent to find out what's happening."
A team of U.N. observers was on standby to fly into Syria and monitor the truce, but the mission still needed approval from the Security Council. Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters the text was more complicated than he expected and that more negotiations would be needed, but he said his government also wanted to act quickly to get observers on the ground.
Russia has been one of Syria's strongest allies, shielding Assad from international condemnation at the U.N. out of fear that it would open the door to possible NATO airstrikes like those which helped topple Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.
President Barack Obama has ramped up U.S. aid, including communications equipment and medical supplies, to Syria's opposition in hopes of accelerating Assad's downfall of Assad, officials said Friday.
The president signed off on the package last week, U.S. officials said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. They declined to outline all forms of American assistance because of the danger anti-Assad protesters have faced over the last year.
Despite the hitches in the cease-fire plan, Syrians poured into the streets Friday. A particularly large protest of many thousands was reported in the sprawling Damascus suburb of Douma, where the regime conducted sweeping arrest raids in the days before the truce.
"It was an example of what a large peaceful protest can be like when the government does not intervene and fire on people," said local activist Mohammed Saeed.
But there were violent eruptions, as well, as security forces fired live rounds, tear gas and beat protesters with clubs in some areas.
Activist Adel al-Omari said security forces opened fire at protesters in the southern village of Nawa as they gathered in a central square, killing at least two.
"Once they gathered in the village's main square they came under fire," al-Omari said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of sources on the ground, said the dead also included two marchers who were in a crowd trying to reach the main Assi Square in Hama, an opposition stronghold.