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Syrian Government Forces Open Fire on Protesters

April 8, 2011 at 6:59 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, more bloody confrontations in Syria.

Human-rights activists reported 32 protesters killed, hundreds wounded. State television claimed 19 police were killed by gunmen.

Judy Woodruff has our story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For the third week in a row, the Friday day of prayer in Syria saw new protests, violence and killings. In the southern city of Daraa, a center of the unrest, thousands swarmed into the streets, denouncing the 40-year rule of the Assad family.

But unidentified gunmen were seen firing from a nearby hilltop near the demonstrations. Witnesses and human rights activists said government security forces had opened fire directly on protesters with rubber bullets, tear gas and live rounds.

Far from Daraa in the northeast, chants of “God, Syria and freedom” rang out in the streets of Qamishli. Protests were reported today not only in those locations, but in the coastal city of Latakia, in the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, and in the city of Hama, where the Syrian army massacred thousands of civilians in 1982, on the orders of then-President Hafez al-Assad.

He died 11 years ago, and his son, Bashar al-Assad, has held power since. Now opposition groups say they are seeking fundamental change, beginning with the president’s removal. But such desires remain just that.

In a speech last week, Bashar al-Assad did not bend to the street. Instead, he blamed unnamed conspirators for the unrest.

BASHAR AL-ASSAD, president of Syria (through translator): I speak to you today during very exceptional times. The events and developments seem to be testing our unity, the test that keeps repeating itself every now and then because of continued conspiracies over the homeland. But our will and unity and God’s will continue to succeed in confronting these conspiracies every time successfully, which adds to our unity and strength.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Assad has offered some reform. He dissolved his Cabinet and yesterday granted citizenship to more than 200,000 ethnic Kurds, who have long sought that status.

But he maintains an iron-fist approach to protesters in the streets, as today’s violence showed again.