AMMAN– Syria said Friday it would hold a "national dialogue" after two months of protests against President Bashar al-Assad and a military crackdown which has killed hundreds of people.
Thousands demonstrated in towns and cities across Syria after the weekly Muslim prayers, activists and witnesses said, but unlike previous Fridays there were few reports of clashes and some protests appeared smaller than in recent weeks.
An adviser to Assad said earlier this week Syria had passed the "most dangerous moment" of an uprising which has shaken Assad's 11-year autocratic rule, and a minister promised on Friday nationwide consultations.
"President Assad has met with local dignitaries and heard their views and opinions regarding what is happening in Syria. The coming days will witness a national and comprehensive dialogue in all the Syrian provinces," Information Minister Adnan Hasan Mahmoud said in televised remarks.
He also said army units had started to withdraw from the coastal city if Banias and completed a pullout from the southern city of Deraa, though residents there reported tanks outside Deraa mosques in the morning.
Assad sent troops and tanks into several cities two weeks ago to suppress the protests, after an early combination of repression and reform gestures -- including lifting a 48-year state of emergency -- failed to stem the dissent.
The government, which blames the unrest on armed Islamists, has faced mounting international pressure over the violence in which rights groups say 700 have been killed. One activist said he had been told by Assad's aide, Bouthaina Shaaban, that he ordered troops and police not to fire on demonstrators.
Al Jazeera television said security forces shot dead two people in the city of Homs, but it was not immediately possible to confirm the report as Syria has prevented most foreign journalists from reporting inside the country.
Witnesses said there were protests in Damascus, in a suburb of the capital and the city of Hama where Assad's father crushed an armed Islamist uprising in 1982. A Kurdish opposition figure said thousands marched in three towns in eastern Syria.
"I am moving among a huge crowd... They are coming from every direction," said a witness in Hama, 270 km (170 miles) north of Damascus, as demonstrators converged on a city square. He said security forces backed off from confronting the crowd.
Residents and activists also reported protests in towns and villages across the southern Hauran Plain, saying troops fired in the air to disperse a crowd of hundreds who took to the streets of Deraa despite an afternoon curfew.
Despite the minister's comments about an army withdrawal, they said tanks in front of mosques and heavy security prevented most people attending prayers. A 2.30 p.m. to 8.00 a.m. curfew started two hours earlier Friday at 12.30 pm.
In the Damascus district of Barzeh and in the suburb of Saqba, witnesses said protesters chanted "We want the overthrow of the regime," the slogan of the Arab uprisings which toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year.
Just north of the capital, security forces fired tear gas into a crowd of 1,000 in the town of Tel, residents said.
In Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border and in village of al-Shujail north of Deir al-Zor, thousands demanded Assad's overthrow, said activists and two residents in the eastern region where authorities carried out mass arrests last week.
The main weekly prayers are a rallying point for protesters because they offer the only opportunity for large gatherings. Fridays have seen the heaviest death tolls in the wave of unrest in which rights groups say 600 to 800 people have been killed.
The Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists said troops have killed 700 people, rounded up thousands and indiscriminately shelled towns during the protests.
The government says about 100 troops and police have been killed. A statement from the official SANA news agency said on Friday more than 5,000 people had surrendered themselves to authorities over their role in the protests and been released, under an amnesty offer which runs until May 15.
In nearly two months of unrest, protests and bloodshed have spread across southern towns, cities on the Mediterranean coast, Damascus suburbs and the central city of Homs. But the two main cities of Damascus and Aleppo have remained relatively quiet.
Syrian forces spread through southern towns Thursday and tightened their grip on two other cities, broadening a crackdown before the weekly prayers.
Rights groups have criticized Washington and its European allies for a tepid response to the Syria violence; in contrast with Libya where they are carrying out a bombing campaign they say will not end until Muammar Gaddafi is driven from power.
The United States and Europe have imposed economic sanctions on senior Syrian officials but not on Assad himself. Western powers say they could take further steps.
Britain summoned the Syrian ambassador to London, warning that unless Syrian authorities "stopped the killing of protesters and released political prisoners...(the EU) would take further measures to hold the regime to account."
"These measures would include further sanctions targeted at the highest levels of the regime, including travel bans and asset freezing," a British Foreign Office spokesman said.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to warn against any international intervention. Efforts to end the violence in Syria were complicated by "the desire of some participants in these processes to attract external forces to support their actions," Interfax quoted him as saying.
The United Nations human rights office said the death toll may be as high as 850 and urged the government "to exercise restraint, to cease use of force and mass arrests to silence opponents." (Reuters)