Tens of thousands of protesters shouting "We want freedom!" made a bold march on the Syrian capital Friday, but security forces beat them back with tear gas and batons as the country's monthlong uprising swelled to the largest and most widespread gatherings to date, witnesses and activists said.
The violence outside of Damascus was the only major unrest reported during protests in several Syrian cities Friday, with security forces generally watching from the sidelines instead of cracking down. The change suggests President Bashar Assad may be trying to minimize deaths that have served to further outrage and mobilize the protesters.
More than 200 people have been killed in the government crackdown in the past four weeks, according to Syria's main pro-democracy group. There were no reports of live ammunition fired directly at protesters Friday.
The protests have forced Assad to reach out to local leaders and offer concessions _ highly unusual steps for an authoritarian leader who keeps a tight grip on power with a small coterie of family and advisers. But the wave of demonstrations are posing the biggest challenge in decades to the Assad family's iron rule.
"The street demands are much more advanced than what the president is offering," said Mazen Darwish, a prominent Syrian writer and activist in Damascus. "The meetings with locals is a good sign, but it shows he is still dealing with the situation on a narrow, regional level as opposed to a national level."
He said Friday's protests appeared to be the biggest and most widespread so far, with well over 100,000 turning out. It was impossible to independently verify the accounts by witnesses and activists in Syria because the government has placed tight restrictions on media coverage, preventing access to trouble spots and expelling journalists.
The protesters have been increasing their demands every Friday, the main day for demonstrations across the Arab world.
Many of the protesters are now chanting for the downfall of the Assad regime, taking their cues from the revolutions that drove out the leaders in Egypt and Tunisia. But the key rallying cry has been an end to the decades-old emergency laws, which give the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge and extend the ruling party's authority into nearly every aspect of Syrian life. The result is a nation ruled by fear of getting thrown into prison for showing even a hint of dissent _ a barrier that now appears to have been largely broken.
The largest protest Friday was in the Damascus suburb of Douma, where witnesses said 100,000 people marched toward central Damascus. It was a bold move by a protest movement that has mostly stayed outside Damascus so far.
The marchers shouted for freedom and clutched yellow cards _ which they said was a soccer-inspired warning to the regime.
"This is our first warning. Next time, we will come with the red cards," said one protester who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone. He said security forces used heavy tear gas and batons in a frantic attempt to stop the march. He asked that his name not be used because of fears for his personal safety.
Another protest was held in Daraa, the southern city that has become the epicenter of the protest movement. Witnesses said at least 20,000 were protesting in Daraa. There was no immediate sign of army and security services in Daraa _ a stark change from previous weeks, when Syrian forces fired tear gas and bullets at the protesters.
Other, smaller protests were held in the northern city of Aleppo as well as Deir ez-Zor, Hama, Homs and Latakia.
For the first time, Syrian television Friday showed video of protests in several cities _ a sign that state-run TV cannot simply ignore the growing demonstrations. It also gave the regime a chance to offer its own version of events.
The Syrian TV report presented a far less dire picture, saying about 300 people protested in the port city of Latakia. It said the march in Douma attracted more than 300 people marched carrying white flags and calling for freedom and reform. There was no mention of an attack by security forces.
In central Damascus, hundred of regime supporters marched near the historic Umayyad mosque, carrying pictures of Assad and chanting: "Our souls, our blood we sacrifice for you, Bashar."
Syria's government and state-run media have sought to cast the unrest as a foreign conspiracy perpetrated by armed gangs targeting security forces and civilians. Reform activists, however, say their movement is peaceful.
In the last few days, Assad has met with religious and tribal leaders from Daraa and Banyas that witnessed some of the biggest protests in recent weeks. He has also met with relatives of those killed in the Damascus suburb of Douma.
He has made significant concessions, fulfilling a decades-old demand by granting citizenship to thousands among Syria's long-ostracized Kurdish minority, firing local officials, releasing detainees and forming a new government.
But the protesters say the gestures are not nearly enough.
Human Rights Watch issued a report Friday saying Syrian security and intelligence agencies have detained and tortured hundreds of protesters in a month of demonstrations.
"There can be no real reforms in Syria while security forces abuse people with impunity," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "President Assad needs to rein in his security services and hold them to account for arbitrary arrests and torture."
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report.