Syrian security forces opened fire on protesters around the country Friday in the latest sign the conflict could be moving toward a long and bloody stalemate as President Bashar Assad shrugged off tighter sanctions and U.S. calls to step aside. Human rights activists said at least 27 people were killed, including a 10-year-old boy.
The clashes indicate neither side appears able to tip the scales in the two-month uprising. Assad's forces have waged a relentless crackdown on the opposition, but protesters continue to face down security forces with marches seeking to break the Syrian leader's authoritarian rule.
Human rights groups say more than 850 people have been killed in the clashes and clampdowns.
Witnesses reported protests Friday in the central cities of Homs and Hama; outside the capital of Damascus, and the Mediterranean ports of Banias and Latakia.
Like most witnesses contacted, the residents asked that their names not be used in fear of reprisals from the government.
Last week, mass arrests and heavy security kept crowds below previous levels seen during the uprising, suggesting Assad's sweeping campaign of intimidation was working. But the marches Friday suggested that opposition forces could be trying to regroup.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Friday's protests were more widespread and larger than the previous week.
"There were large numbers from the south to the north to the suburbs, and there were protests in besieged cities and towns," he said. "Despite the heavy security and military presence in almost all these places, people staged protests calling for freedom. This is very significant."
Witnesses said several protests broke out in and around Homs, and some groups were able to coalesce into a larger protest. One Homs resident reached by phone said as the crowd swelled, security forces tried to close off the area, and then the shooting started.
"Immediately, the security forces opened fire, at first shooting in the air. But when the crowd failed to break up, they turned their guns on the people," he said.
In the south, the area around the city of Daraa remained under siege. In a phone interview from the town of Sanamein, one woman who didn't want her name used, said the regime was showing no mercy when faced with unarmed demonstrators.
"They went out in a peaceful protest — unarmed people carrying nothing but their words," she said. "They met them with live bullets and several martyrs fell, among them a child who did not reach his 10th birthday yet."
Syrian human rights activist Mustafa Osso said witnesses also were reporting that the army deployed tanks around the northern town of Maaret al-Numan, which has seen intense protests. The Local Coordination Committees in Syria, which help organize the protests, said dozens of people were wounded in the town and hospitals were calling for blood donations.
Friday's death toll was reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The group said 10 were killed in Homs, 11 in Maaret al-Numan, one in Latakia, two in the northeastern town of Deir el-Zour, one each in the southern villages of Sanamein and Harra and one in the Damascus suburb of Daraya.
A 10-year-old boy was among the dead in Homs, Osso said.
Pro-regime analyst Taleb Ibrahim told Al Jazeera's Arabic news channel that the opposition is to blame for problems in starting a dialogue.
"They say 'freedom,' they say 'topple the regime,' but they don't know what political freedom means. They want to topple the government but they don't have a legitimate alternative," he said. "It's a fractured opposition."
When the Homs demonstrator was told of Ibrahim's comments, he replied that of course the opposition is fractured, because the regime threw so many of its leaders in jail.
"The level of disgrace is unbelievable! There is no confidence in this regime. What kind of regime is this? How can you have dialogue with someone who fires on unarmed civilians?" he said.
Syria is coming under increasing pressure to end the crackdown, but the government has brushed off the criticism and new U.S. sanctions that have targeted Assad and senior aides.
Neighboring Lebanon has also been criticized for its handling of Syrian refugees. Human Rights Watch called on Lebanon to stop detaining people fleeing the violence, and above all, not to return them to Syria, where they could face torture.
In an address Thursday on the Arab world uprising, U.S. President Barack Obama said that Assad should lead his country to democracy or "get out of the way."
Syria's official news agency said Obama's speech amounted to "incitement." Syria has blamed the unrest on armed thugs and foreign agitators.
Also Friday, leading Sunni Muslim cleric Sheik Karim Rajeh, the imam of Damascus's Al-Hassan mosque, said he will no longer lead Friday sermons because security forces have been preventing people from going to prayers. The weekly demonstrations mostly kick off after prayers.
Syria has banned foreign journalists and prevented local reporters from covering trouble spots, making it nearly impossible to independently verify witness accounts.
NPR's Peter Kenyon contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.