BEIRUT — Syrian security forces killed at least 20 protesters Friday despite promises by President Bashar Assad that the military operations against the 5-month-old uprising are over.
The killings, which came as thousands poured into the streets across Syria, suggest the autocratic leader is either unwilling to stop the violence – or not fully in control of his own regime.
Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, is facing the most serious international isolation of his rule. On Thursday, the United States and its European allies demanded he step down.
Military operations have subsided in the past few days, following a fresh crackdown on major flashpoint cities that started at the beginning of the month to root out anti-government protesters.
But persistent gunfire and shootings, along with Friday's killings, underscore the difficulty of any kind of diplomatic pressure achieving results in the absence of any appetite for military intervention.
Human rights groups said Assad's forces have killed nearly 2,000 people since the uprising erupted in mid-March. A high-level U.N. team recommended Thursday that the violence in Syria be referred to the International Criminal Court over possible crimes against humanity.
"Bye, bye Bashar, see you in The Hague!" protesters shouted Friday in the central city of Homs as crowds filled the streets, spurred on by the international condemnation.
ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said he has received reports of atrocities in Syria but has no jurisdiction "at this stage" to open an investigation because Damascus does not recognize the court.
He said he could begin investigating at the request of the U.N. Security Council. Syria's U.N. ambassador said a U.N. humanitarian assessment team will arrive in Damascus on Saturday.
The International Committee of the Red Cross also said it is optimistic Syrian authorities will grant the humanitarian organization access to all detainees in the country "within weeks."
The number of protesters Friday appeared to be markedly lower than in previous weeks, largely due to the crackdown and security presence. But amateur video posted online by activists showed thousands of protesters in various areas, some calling for Assad's departure, others for his execution.
"We will not sell the blood of our martyrs," read a banner in Hilfaya, near Hama.
The unrest has laid bare old resentments in Syria, a mostly Sunni Muslim country with a potentially explosive sectarian mix. Beset by popular upheaval, Assad is increasingly relying on a coterie of relatives from his tiny Alawite sect, leading to speculation about how much power he commands over them.
His younger brother, Maher, is key, believed to be in command of much of the current bloody crackdown. Chief of Syria's elite forces and reputed to have once shot a brother-in-law in the stomach in a family feud, Maher's recent tactics have been denounced as inhumane by the prime minister of neighboring Turkey.
Maher Assad, 42, is commander of the army's 4th Division, regarded as Syria's best-equipped and most highly trained forces, and of the six brigades of the Republican Guard, responsible for protecting the capital, Damascus.
Since the uprising began, activists say, Maher's troops have played a role in anti-dissident operations in the southern city of Daraa, the coastal city of Banias, the central province of Homs and the northern province of Idlib, where thousands of terrified residents have fled to Turkey.
Although Assad told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday that military and police operations had stopped, residents and activists said soldiers, tanks and armored personnel carriers were still deployed in restive cities.
Asked Friday whether the U.N. chief believes Assad when he says the violence has stopped, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said: "We continue to hear some disturbing reports that we would need to look into."
Analysts say Assad's comments to Ban could have simply been an attempt to tell Ban what he wanted to hear at a time when Syria is becoming more isolated internationally.
"What else is he going to tell Ban?" said David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "His line is going to be that 'armed gangs continue to murder innocent civilians and military personnel,'" he said.
A secret U.S. diplomatic cable, dated June 2009 and released by WikiLeaks this month, describes Assad's regime as one that has been caught in a web of untruths for years.
"SARG (Syrian government) officials lie at every level," wrote Maura Connelly, the U.S. charge d'affaires in Damascus at the time. "They persist in a lie even in the face of evidence to the contrary. They are not embarrassed to be caught in a lie."
A day after President Barack Obama made his first explicit call for Assad to step down, European Union officials said Friday the bloc's 27 member states were considering more economic sanctions against Syria, including an embargo on oil, which could significantly slash the Damascus government's revenues.
But the harsh statements appeared to have no immediate effect on the regime.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and The Local Coordination Committees, an activist group, said demonstrations took place in the cities of Daraa, Damascus, Homs, Latakia, Deir el-Zour and other areas.
The observatory said 20 people were killed, including eight who died in the southern village of Ghabagheb, five in the nearby village of Hirak, two in Homs and one each in the southern villages of Inkhil and Nawa and the Damascus suburb of Harasta.
The Local Coordination Committees said that 22 people were killed in different areas, mostly in the south.
It is impossible to resolve the discrepancy or to verify the death toll. Syria has banned foreign reporters and restricted coverage by local media.
On Friday, Syrian state TV, which issues reports that often contradict witness accounts, said gunmen killed the head of a police station in Ghabagheb and a policeman in the Damascus suburb of Harasta.
On Friday, the U.N. released the full text of a report saying Syrian government forces may have committed crimes against humanity by conducting summary executions, torturing prisoners and targeting children. The release includes rebuttals by the Syrian Foreign Ministry, offering a rare firsthand look into the regime's justifications for the crackdown.
In the Arabic-language statements to the U.N., the ministry insists the Syrian government is facing a threat from what it calls terrorists who are hijacking demands for reform to cause chaos.
"We don't have any records of a person dying under torture," an Aug. 5 statement said.
The rebuttals also touch on the case of Hamza al-Khatib, 13, whose apparent torture and mutilation turned him into a symbol of the uprising. The statement accuses the youth of terrorism but denies that government forces shot him.
"We would like to inform you that this person, when he was killed, was taking part in a terrorist armed group in an attack on a residential area in the province of Daraa," the statement said, referring to the southern province where the uprising began.
"He was carrying a sharp instrument," the statement said. "He was hit by several bullets from a close distance, which shows that those who shot him were his comrades, the saboteurs."
AP writers Elizabeth A. Kennedy and Bassem Mroue contributed to this report.
Zeina Karam can be reached at http://twitter.com/zkaram