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Syrian troops fire during protests; 7 killed

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BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian security forces killed at least seven people Friday after thousands of protesters took to the streets, charging that President Bashar Assad never intended to abide by an Arab League plan to end violence, activists said.

The bloodshed was a blow to the 22-nation Arab League, which announced Wednesday that Damascus agreed to a broad plan that included an end to violence against demonstrators.

Opposition groups called for a large turnout in Friday's protests to test whether the regime would in fact refrain from using deadly force. Gunfire erupted shortly after the protests began, in the same pattern as previous Fridays for months.

"This regime is not serious about ending its brutal crackdown," said Mustafa Osso, a Syria-based human rights lawyer. "Today was a real test for the intentions of the regime and the answer is clear to everyone who wants to see."

Thousands of protesters braved cold and rainy weather to stage anti-Assad demonstrations.

"Arab League, beware of Bashar Assad," read one banner carried by protesters in Homs. "Which dialogue are you talking about?" read another.

Most opposition leaders refuse to meet with Assad because of his brutal crackdown, which has killed about 3,000 people in nearly eight months of protests, according to the U.N. Instead, protesters demand that Assad resign.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Osso said seven people were killed Friday, most of them in Homs and suburbs of the Syrian capital.

"The regime is playing for time and has absolutely no intention of abiding by the agreement," Osso said.

Activists said Friday's rallies were largest in Homs, Syria's third-largest city and home to some 800,000 people, where the crackdown has been deadliest.

On Thursday, at least 18 people were reported to have been killed in a security crackdown in Homs.

A resident of Homs said mass marches formed after Friday prayers in most districts of the city, despite the heavy security presence and violence of the past days.

"They are big, they are calling for the downfall of the regime and they aim to show that the Arab League agreement is a joke," he said on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Demonstrations were also reported in the southern province of Daraa and in the eastern cities of Deir el-Zour and Qamishli.

In the coastal town of Banias, security forces beat worshippers as they came out of the Abu Bakr al-Siddiq mosque. Then they blockaded dozens more inside the building so that they could not join the march, activists said.

Under the Arab League accord announced Wednesday in Cairo, the Syrian government agreed to pull tanks and armored vehicles out of cities, stop violence against protesters and release all political prisoners. Syria also agreed to allow journalists, rights groups and Arab League representatives to monitor the situation in the country.

The government has largely sealed off the country from foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting, making it difficult to confirm events on the ground. Key sources of information are amateur videos posted online, witness accounts and details gathered by activist groups.

The Arab League accord is the latest in a string of international efforts to ease the crisis, which has led to widespread condemnation of the regime and international calls for Assad to step down.

Assad, 46, still has a firm grip on power, in part because he has the support of the business classes and minority groups who feel vulnerable in an overwhelmingly Sunni nation. Also, he appears to retain the backing of most of the military, despite some defections.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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