BEIRUT — Syrian security forces opened fire on anti-government demonstrations Friday, killing at least eight people as thousands took to the streets despite the near-certainty they would face gunfire, tear gas and stun guns, human rights activists and witnesses said.
The casualties included three people in Qatana, a suburb of the capital, and four in the southern village of Dael, according to the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, which help organize the protests. One person also was reported killed near the border with Lebanon.
The 10-week protests in Syria have evolved from a disparate movement demanding reforms to a resilient uprising that is now seeking President Bashar Assad's ouster. On Friday, protests erupted in the capital, Damascus, and the coastal city of Banias, the central city of Homs and elsewhere.
Human rights groups say more than 1,000 people have been killed since the revolt began in mid-March – a death toll that has enraged and motivated protesters.
Many activists have been opting for nighttime demonstrations and candlelight vigils in recent days, aiming for a time when the security presence has thinned out.
"We refuse to let them sleep," a 28-year-old Dael resident said of the security forces.
"We drive them crazy, as soon as they come to the neighborhood we go quiet and they get lost. And then we start again when they leave," he told The Associated Press.
The resident, an engineer who asked that his name not be used, said the protest started at 2 a.m. and was peaceful until security forces opened fire an hour later. He said three cousins from the same family were killed.
Since then, there has been a curfew in the town.
"I cannot stick my head out the window, if they see a cat they'll shoot at it," he said.
A witness in Damascus, who asked to be identified only by his nickname, Abu Moustafa, said up to 1,500 people were chanting for the downfall of the regime in the Qaboun neighborhood. More than 20 buses carrying soldiers and security forces arrived on the scene, raising tensions, he said.
At least two other gatherings also were reported in the capital.
Another witness in the central city of Homs – the site of some of the largest demonstrations in recent weeks – said thousands of people were chanting for the downfall of the regime. Security forces held their fire but closed all the roads leading to the city center.
Also Friday, human rights activist Mustafa Osso said Syrian security forces opened fire at demonstrators in the northeastern town of Deir el-Zour, but it was not clear if there were casualties.
He added that 5,000 people demonstrated in the northeastern city of Qamishli, while more than 3,000 protested in the village of Amouda and 2,000 marched in the nearby town of Derbasiya.
Syria has banned foreign journalists and prevented access to trouble spots, making it difficult to verify witness counts independently.
Assad appears determined to crush the revolt, which is posing the most serious challenge to his family's 40-year rule. The harsh crackdown has triggered international outrage and U.S. and European sanctions, including an EU assets freeze and a visa ban on Assad and nine members of his regime.
But the country is getting support from longtime ally Russia. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Friday there is no need to slap any new sanctions on Syria.
Speaking at a news conference following the Group of Eight summit in Deauville, France, he also said Assad should introduce democratic reforms and stop using violence against opposition protesters.
Turkey, which shares a 545-mile (880-kilometer) border with Syria and has been highly critical of the regime's brutal crackdown, said Friday that Syria may yet still be able to achieve stability.
"What is needed now is shock therapy," Turkey's foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in a televised interview. "If reforms are brought about now, this would open the way for peace and change."
Assad has acknowledged the need for reforms, offering overtures of change in recent weeks while cracking down on demonstrations. Among his overtures to the protesters was abolishing the country's reviled state of emergency, in place for decades, which gave the regime unchecked powers of surveillance and arrest.
Also Friday, Assad was quoted in Lebanon's daily As-Safir newspaper as promising there will be "no going back" on reforms. He did not elaborate.
On Thursday, the Syrian opposition called on the army to join the uprising against Assad's regime, saying regime elements are targeting protesters and troops. The opposition said on Facebook that protests planned for Friday will honor the "Guardians of the Nation," a reference to the army.
The call appears to be an effort to break a stalemate after nearly 10 weeks of protests. During the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, the armed forces broke with the regimes and sided with the protesters.
The regime blames the unrest on "armed groups," not reform-seekers.
The protests in Syria are raising concerns that the unrest could spill over into neighboring Lebanon.
The Syrian Committee for Human Rights said Friday that a leading opposition figure, 86-year-old Shibli al-Aisamy, a defector from Assad's ruling Baath Party, went missing along with his wife in Lebanon.
The rights group urged Lebanese authorities not to hand him over to Syria.
AP writers Zeina Karam and Elizabeth A. Kennedy contributed to this report from Beirut.
Bassem Mroue can be reached at http://twitter.com/bmroue