BEIRUT — Tens of thousands of Syrians braved tear gas and gunfire to protest across the country Friday, vowing to storm the capital Damascus to oust President Bashar Assad as the European Union ramped up pressure on the regime by imposing sanctions on his wife and other close relatives.
Security forces deployed in many cities to disperse protests, but opposition groups reported fewer protester deaths than in past weeks. Activists said more than 20 people were killed nationwide in army attacks on opposition areas or clashes with armed rebels.
International condemnation and high-level diplomacy have failed to stop the year-old Syria crisis, which the U.N. says has killed more than 8,000 people, many of them civilian protesters.
Friday's sanctions bring to 13 the sets imposed by the EU to try to compel the regime to halt its violent crackdown on dissent. The U.S. and others have also imposed sanctions. Previous measures were aimed at Syrian companies and Assad himself.
Those imposed Friday targeted Asma Assad, Syria's British-born first lady, banning her from traveling to EU countries and freezing any assets she may have there. They also included the president's mother, sister, sister-in-law and eight government ministers.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said sanctions were weakening the regime.
"Their economic situation becomes ever more difficult. Syria has few reserves," he said. "We think its economic situation will become untenable."
While the measures have hurt Syria's economy, they appear to have had little effect on the regime's actions. It has regularly deployed troops, pro-government thugs and snipers to attack anti-regime protests. Human rights groups accuse the regime of shelling civilian areas and torturing and killing detainees in its push to stop the uprising, which it blames on terrorists carrying out a foreign conspiracy.
In Geneva, the U.N. Human Rights Council blasted Syria's crackdown and extended the mandate of a U.N. expert panel tasked with reporting on alleged abuses in the country.
A resolution passed by the 47-member body condemned "widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms perpetrated" by Syrian authorities, including summary executions, torture and sexual abuse of detainees and children.
Also Friday, UNICEF said at least 500 children have been killed in the conflict, while hundreds more have been injured, detained or abused. The U.N. children's agency said schools have closed and health centers have shut down or become too dangerous for many families to reach.
Throughout the conflict, China and Russia have protected Syria from censure by the U.N. Security Council, fearing a strongly worded resolution condemning Assad could pave the way for military intervention, as happened in Libya last year.
Russia, however, softened its stance Thursday by calling for Assad to pull his troops out of Syrian cities. The U.N. has been trying to secure a cease-fire so all parties could hold a dialogue on a political solution to end the conflict. So far, both sides have refused talks.
Regime forces continued to pound oppositions areas Friday, and activists reported major shelling and fire with heavy machine-guns in the provinces of Homs in central Syria, Idlib in the north and Daraa.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 23 civilians were killed in government attacks Friday. Government troops and armed rebels clashed in a number of places, with at 13 soldiers and three rebel fighter killed, the group said.
Another group, the Local Coordination Committees, said government troops killed 36 civilians on Friday. It did not provide details on each civilian killed.
Activists reported dozens of anti-regime protests in towns and cities across Syria under the banner "Damascus, we are coming." Security forces broke up many of them with gunfire and tear gas, and there were reports of wounded.
Activists reported fewer protester deaths and Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Observatory, said he had yet to confirm a single protester death on Friday, remarking that this was unusual.
"We hope it happens like this every time because we don't want anyone to die," he said.
The Syrian government has barred most media from working in the country, and activist accounts could not be independently verified.
Syria's state news agency said hundreds marched in a pro-Assad demonstration in the capital Damascus and published photos of them carrying Syrian flags and Assad photos.
In Jordan's capital Amman, blind Syrian cleric Ahmad al-Sayasneh called on a congregation of 1,000 Syrians to "remain steadfast until our tyrant leadership is ousted."
It was the cleric's first public appearance since fleeing Syria two months ago. Al-Sayasneh rose to prominence though his fiery sermons calling for civil disobedience at a mosque in the southern Syrian town of Daraa, considered the uprising's birthplace.
Associated Press writer Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this story.