By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian protesters called Friday for international protection from a military crackdown on nearly six months of nationwide demonstrations demanding an end to President Bashar al-Assad's rule.
Activists said large crowds marched in the city of Homs, where the army and militiamen loyal to Assad raided several districts this week, and in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, which was stormed by tanks last month.
Protests also broke out in suburbs of the capital Damascus, the Kurdish northeast, the northwestern province of Idlib near Turkey and in southern Syria near Jordan.
Assad has responded to the unrest, inspired by Arab popular uprisings that have toppled three autocratic leaders in North Africa this year, with military assaults in which the United Nations says 2,200 people have died.
"The Syrian people demand international protection for civilians," read a banner in Idlib.
In Hajar al-Aswad, on the southern edge of Damascus, protesters carried a green, white and red-striped old Syrian flag, dating back half a century to the era before Assad's Baath Party seized control of Syria.
"After all these killings and assaults, where is international protection?" read a banner carried by protesters who chanted: "The people want the execution of the president."
Friday's protests echoed the first direct call Thursday by the Syrian opposition for foreign intervention.
The Syrian Revolution General Commission, an umbrella bloc of activists, appealed to world powers to send human rights monitors to help deter military attacks on civilians.
Syrian forces arrested dozens of people in house-to-house raids in Homs Thursday after military operations that killed at least 27 civilians Wednesday. Activists and residents also reported more defections among the rank-and-file army.
Human Rights Watch said security forces "forcibly removed 18 wounded people" from a hospital in Homs Wednesday, and also prevented medical personnel from reaching wounded people.
"Snatching wounded people from the operating room is inhumane and illegal, not to mention life-threatening," said HRW Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson.
FRIDAY PRAYER PROTESTS
With large gatherings virtually impossible in most parts of Syria under a pervasive security grip, and with military and militiamen loyal to Assad deployed in numerous cities and towns, Friday prayers have become an opportunity for crowds to gather.
But while protesters have begun chanting slogans calling for international protection, there has been no hint in the West of an appetite for a repeat of NATO air strikes that played a major role in the overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
No country has proposed the kind of intervention in Syria that NATO carried out in Libya. Syria has three times Libya's population, and unlike isolated Libya it is intricately linked to neighbors on the fault lines of Middle East conflicts.
The Syrian military launched offensives against the cities of Latakia, Aleppo and Deir al-Zor last month, with Assad repeatedly saying he was fighting a foreign conspiracy to divide Syria and the authorities blaming "armed terrorist groups" for the killings, including 500 army and police.
Syria's powerful neighbor Turkey indicated that its patience was running thin given the lack of progress in its efforts to convince Assad to halt military assaults.
"Mr Assad, how can you say you are killing terrorists when you were actually shelling Latakia from the sea and hitting civilian targets?" Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on al-Jazeera Television in an interview broadcast Thursday.
"We are moving patiently now. But after consultations, we will give our final word, which will show an exit from the tunnel, because we are not the ones who put Assad on this dead-end road. It was he and those around him who entered this dead-end road."
In Idlib province near the border with Turkey, at least three army defectors were killed by the military as it raided the Jabal al-Zawiya area in pursuit of deserters, local activists said.
Syria's rank-and-file soldiers are majority Sunni Muslims, like the rest of the country. Assad, the ruling hierarchy and most of the security apparatus and army officer corps are from Syria's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
Russia, which has an old navy base in Syria and gas and oil concessions, hinted that it is ready to discuss a possible U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria but will not support a document that targets only the authorities for censure.
"They must send a firm signal to all conflicting sides that they need to sit down at the negotiations table, they need to agree and stop the bloodshed," President Dmitry Medvedev said in published remarks.
(Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Editing by Mark Heinrich)