BEIRUT (AP) — Government supporters and opponents clashed in three Syrian cities on Tuesday and security forces opened fire, killing at least seven people including a teenager, activists reported. The bloodshed came as President Bashar Assad's regime sought to counter a 3-month-old pro-democracy uprising with mass demonstrations.
The Local Coordinating Committees, which track the Syrian protest movement, said a 13-year-old boy was killed when security forces opened fire on antigovernment protesters in a main square in the central city of Hama.
Three other people were killed in Homs, central Syria, and three in the Mayadin district in the eastern city of Deir el Zour during pro and anti-regime demonstrations. The two sides have clashed in the past, but Tuesday's bloodshed appeared to be the worst such violence.
"We are seeing an escalation by authorities today," said Omar Idilbi, spokesman for the committees. "They are sending pro-government thugs along with security forces to attack protesters."
Tens of thousands of people waving flags and pictures of Assad converged on squares in several major cities on Tuesday, a day after he offered a vague plan for political reform in a speech that was rejected by opposition supporters, who took to the streets shouting, "Liar!" He had shown no sign of readiness to end his family's long political domination in Syria, a key opposition demand.
An eyewitness in Homs told The Associated Press a pro-Assad protest with some 10,000 participants "descended" on the city on Tuesday. "Nobody knows them, they are strangers to the city, they were asking for directions," he said.
Anti-government demonstrators then emerged in Homs neighborhoods, gunfire broke out, and several people were killed and six wounded, he said.
"The security forces arrested the wounded. They stepped on them on the ground and arrested them," said the witness, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, and who said gunfire continued.
He and other activists said the government mobilized the pro-regime demonstrations, forcing students to participate and busing in people from villages near the coastal town of Latakia.
In the restive northern province of Idlib, where the army has been conducting operations for days, activists said soldiers had reached Hamboushieh, a village a mile (2 kilometers) from where thousands of displaced Syrians were camped out on the Syrian side of the Turkish border. Heavy shooting was reported in the area, but its source was not immediately clear.
Tens of thousands of Syrians took part in Tuesday's boisterous pro-regime demonstrations, shouting, "The people want Bashar Assad!" and releasing black, white and red balloons — colors of the Syrian flag.
The largest gathering appeared to be in Damascus, but Syrian state TV showed similar demonstrations in the northern cities of Aleppo and Latakia, Hasaka in the northeast, and the southern city of Daraa.
Assad's speech — and Tuesday's pro-regime display — showed the president clearly intends to try to ride out the wave of pro-democracy protests, showing the steely determination that has kept the Assad family in power for 40 years.
But the mobilized opposition appeared to be digging in as well, bracing for a showdown in one of the deadliest uprisings of the Arab Spring.
The opposition estimates more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed and 10,000 detained as Assad unleashed his military and security forces to crush the protest movement that erupted in March, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
Assad's attempts to appease the opposition have generally fallen flat. In the hours after Monday's speech, the state-run news agency SANA said he was offering a "general amnesty" for crimes committed before June 20. But there were few details, and it appeared the decree applied only to prisoners with a fatal illness or who were convicted of minor smuggling or drug charges.
The International Committee of the Red Cross announced in Geneva on Tuesday the Syrian government has promised to give it and the Syrian Red Crescent more access to Syrians wounded and detained in the crackdown.
The announcement came after ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger met with Prime Minister Adel Safar and Foreign Minister Walid Moallem in Damascus. Kellenberger had urged Syria to allow the humanitarian organizations to operate unhindered to assess the needs of those affected in the unrest and military operations.
Assad's speech at Damascus University on Monday was only his third public appearance since the uprising began in March. He said a national dialogue would start soon and he was forming a committee to study constitutional amendments, including one that would open the way to forming political parties other than the ruling Baath Party. He acknowledged demands for reform were legitimate, but he rehashed allegations that "saboteurs" were exploiting the movement.
The U.N. refugee agency's spokesman, Adrian Edwards, said Tuesday that 500 to 1,000 people a day have been crossing from northern Syria into Turkey since June 7 and more than 10,000 Syrian refugees are being sheltered by Turkish authorities in four border camps.
International pressure on Assad has been mounting. Even Russia, which has stood behind Syria, appeared to be shifting its stance Tuesday.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called for international pressure on Syria's leadership over its deadly crackdown, although he said there should be no international intervention.
Speaking in Paris on Tuesday, Putin said, "We need to apply pressure on the leadership of any country where massive unrest, and especially bloodshed, is happening."
Turkish President Abdullah Gul said late Monday that Assad's speech was welcome but "not enough."
"He wants to (carry out reforms), but he has to say clearly and with determination: 'Things have changed, we are moving to a multiparty system. Whatever the people's will is, it will happen and I will bring about this transition,'" Gul said.
"As soon as he says this, I believe, he will be able to get ahead of the situation and take things under control. Maybe he is saying these things in between the lines, but he has to say them clearly," the Turkish president said.
Zeina Karam can be reached on http://twitter.com/zkaram