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Cease-fire survives as Syrians protest without major bloodshed

QAA, Lebanon — Thousands of people held street rallies across Syria on Friday to protest the government of President Bashar Assad, the first test of a U.N.-brokered ceasefire that went into effect Thursday. By most accounts, the cease-fire held.

Syrian security forces used tear gas and rifle fire to disperse some of the protests, according to anti-Assad activists, and activists told news agencies that the death toll for the day had reached 13.

But there was no use of heavy weapons or artillery, and the number of reported dead and wounded was far lower than in previous days.

An anti-Assad activist in the central Syrian city of Hama said three people were killed and more than 20 injured when security forces opened fire on demonstrators at a rally inside the city and at another at a nearby village.

But the activist, Samir al Husein, said there was no violence at a demonstration he'd attended that involved about 1,000 people. He also said no one was present from the Free Syrian Army, the term for the loosely organized armed groups of former soldiers and anti-Assad volunteers who've taken up arms against the government.

An activist reached by phone in Damascus who identified himself only as Mar estimated that more than 40 anti-Assad rallies had taken place in the capital — the largest number in three months, he said. Those, too, were largely peaceful.

The exception was a gathering in the neighborhood of Mezzeh, which is close to the presidential palace and home to many army and intelligence officers. Mar said the Mezzeh demonstration "was attacked brutally by thugs," a reference to pro-government militiamen. He did not give a casualty toll, however.

"Damascus was on fire today — it was one of most glorious days for the

revolution, one of the largest days," Mar said.

Foreign reporters generally have been barred from Syria, and it is difficult to assess the extent of Friday's protests. A video posted on YouTube purported to show what appeared to be thousands of people marching to Assi Square in central Hama, carrying flags and banners and chanting "God is great" and "To paradise we march, martyrs in the millions."

But at least some of the rallies seemed to have been considerably smaller and lasted a relatively short period of time, perhaps out of concern that longer protests would draw reaction of pro-government forces. Mar said one of the rallies he attended dispersed after about 20 minutes.

"It's just a matter of time before they go back to mass killing," he said.

In Hama and Homs, activists reported that Syrian army troops were nearby, a presence that may have affected turnout. On Thursday, U.S. officials and others who have pressed for Assad to step down, charged that the continued troop presence in some population centers was a violation of the cease-fire accord, which in addition to a cessation of fighting also called for government troops to pull out of residential areas.

But the spokesman for the U.N. official who'd brokered the cease-fire deal sounded upbeat as he assessed the situation Friday in comments reported by the Associated Press.

"We hope both sides will sustain this calm, this relative calm," Ahmad Fawzi, an aide to U.N. Syria envoy Kofi Annan, said, according to the AP. "We are thankful that there's no heavy shelling, that the number of casualties are dropping, that the number of refugees who are crossing the borders are also dropping."

Still, the relative calm was not enough to persuade refugees who've crowded into this town on the Lebanese side of the border with Syria that it was time to go home. Many said they expect the violence to resume.

One man who declined to identify himself said he'd heard anti-aircraft fire coming from Syria on Thursday, the cease-fire's first day, and that that was enough to keep him in Lebanon. "It is too dangerous," he said.

The number of refugees in Qaa, Lebanon, nearly doubled in the past three weeks as the military conducted brutal campaigns against Assad opponents in Homs and the nearby Syrian city of Qusayr.

As they watched the news on the Arabic satellite channel Al Arabiya, refugees from the Syrian town of Jusee, which they said had been under bombardment for the past month, expressed skepticism that a cease-fire could hold for long. They said they did not believe Assad would be deposed without force.

Meanwhile, in Istanbul, Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, and his Jordanian counterpart, Nasser Judeh, called for international help to deal with what they said was an overwhelming number of refugees who've sought safety in their countries.

They estimated that 25,000 Syrians are now in camps in Turkey and as many as 100,000 have fled to Jordan, and that they expect the number to swell. Diplomatic sources said the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees this week dispatched 1,500 tents and blankets to Turkey to help provide accommodations to the refugees.

"We have asked for international humanitarian aid," Davutoglu said.

Judeh said the two men had voiced support for the U.N. cease-fire plan in their talks Friday. "We hope it can succeed," he said.

(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Ipek Yezdani contributed to this report from Istanbul.)


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