At least three protesters were shot dead by Syrian security forces on Friday on the second day of a nationwide ceasefire meant to restore peaceful political dialogue after 13 months of extreme violence, opposition activists said.
Syrians took to the streets across the country in small demonstrations after Friday's Muslim prayers, trusting that the two-day-old ceasefire would protect them from the army bullets that have frightened off peaceful protesters for months.
Activists said state security forces were out in strength to block streets in many cities to prevent protesters forming major anti-Assad rallies.
One person was killed as marchers tried to converge on a central square in the city of Hama. Security forces shot one person dead as worshippers left a mosque in the town of Nawa in the southern Deraa province, where the uprising began.
A third died from his wounds after he was shot by security forces in the town of Salqeen in the northwestern province of Idlib, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the anti-Assad Local Coordination Committees said.
Rallies filmed by activists were far smaller than the huge, chanting crowds seen in major cities at the start of the uprising 13 months ago and on several occasions in 2011, before ruthless suppression drove all protest off the streets.
The activist Local Coordination Committees reported shots fired at several locations on Friday to scare off crowds and break up marches. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted activists as saying there was gunfire at one demonstration in the town of Salqeen in northwestern Idlib province.
Its director, Rami Abdulrahman, said there was no sign of any major demonstration taking place in the country. He estimated the number of Assad opponents marching in public on Friday totalled tens of thousands.
In the capital, Damascus, an activist reported a heavy security presence across the city.
He said demonstrators were throwing stones at security forces in Jobar district, and there were demonstrations in the Barzeh, Kafr Souseh and Midan quarters. In the town of Deraya outside Damascus one person was wounded when a sniper fired on a demonstration, he said.
DEMO PERMITS NEEDED
Along with the ceasefire that began on Thursday and the withdrawal of forces from population centres, U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan calls for talks with the opposition aimed at a "political transition".
In addition to the ceasefire, Assad has also agreed to "respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully". But he has not withdrawn troops, tanks and artillery from urban centres as Annan's plan demands.
Burhan Ghalioun, head of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), said on Thursday he did not trust Damascus to allow the renewal of protests after Friday prayers, a feature of the uprising that has been subdued by violence in recent months.
"While we call on the Syrian people to protest strongly ... we ask them to be cautious because the regime will not respect the ceasefire and will shoot," he told Reuters.
The Syrian Interior Ministry said only pre-authorised demonstrations would be permitted by police.
"This is ridiculous," said an activist called Musab from Hama city, a focus of opposition activity and government bombardment along with Homs and Idlib. "They will not give you permission and you will be taken to jail if you ask for it".