AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian security forces shot dead dozens of protesters on Friday, rights activists said, the bloodiest day in a month of escalating demonstrations against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.
Activist Ammar Qurabi said at least 49 people were killed in unrest which swept the country, mainly from bullet wounds but also from inhaling tear gas. Many more were wounded and around 20 were still missing, he said.
It was not possible to independently confirm the figures.
Tens of thousands of people had taken to the streets of cities across Syria and chanted for the "overthrow of the regime," reflecting the hardening of demands which initially focused on reforms and greater freedoms.
The protests went ahead despite Assad's lifting of the state of emergency the day before. Ending the hated emergency rule, in place since the Baath Party seized power 48 years ago, was a central demand of demonstrators, who also seek the release of political prisoners and dismantling of the security services.
"This was the first test of the seriousness of authorities (toward reform) and they have failed," Qurabi said.
Before Friday's violence rights groups had said more than 220 people had been killed in the unrest which broke out on March 18 in the southern city of Deraa.
As in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions that ousted Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, citizens are rebelling against both a lack of freedom and opportunity and security forces' impunity and corruption that has enriched the elite while one-third of Syrians live below the poverty line.
In the first joint statement since the protests broke out, activists coordinating the demonstrations on Friday demanded the abolition of the Baath Party monopoly on power and the establishment of a democratic political system.
"All prisoners of conscience must be freed. The existing security apparatus has to be dismantled and replaced by one with specific jurisdiction and which operates according to law," they said in the statement, which was sent to Reuters.
Aided by his family and a pervasive security apparatus, Assad, 45, has absolute power in Syria.
PROTESTS ACROSS COUNTRY
Protests swept the country of 20 million people, from the Mediterranean city of Banias to the eastern towns of Deir al-Zor and Qamishli. In Damascus, security forces fired teargas to disperse 2,000 protesters in the district of Midan.
In the city of Hama, where Assad's father ruthlessly crushed an armed Islamist uprising nearly 30 years ago, a witness said security forces opened fire to prevent protesters reaching the Baath Party headquarters.
"We saw two snipers on the building. None of us had weapons. There are casualties, possibly two dead," said the witness.
Witnesses said security forces also shot at demonstrators in the Damascus district of Barzeh, the central city of Homs, the Damascus suburb of Douma, and on protesters heading for the city of Deraa, where Syria's uprising first broke out five weeks ago.
Al Jazeera showed footage of three corpses, wrapped in white burial shrouds, which it said were from the eastern Damascus suburb of Zamalka.
Ahead of the main weekly prayers on Friday, which have often turned out to be launch pads for major demonstrations, the army deployed in Homs and police put up checkpoints across Damascus, apparently trying to prevent protests sweeping in from suburbs.
After prayers finished in Deraa, several thousand protesters gathered chanting anti-Assad slogans. "The Syrian people will not be subjugated. Go away doctor (Assad). We will trample on you and your slaughterous regime," they shouted.
Assad's conciliatory move to lift the state of emergency followed a familiar pattern since the unrest began a month ago: pledges of reform are made before Friday when demonstrations are the strongest, usually followed by an intense crackdown.
Activists said some funerals for those killed on Friday took place in Damascus suburbs in the evening. Funerals have been another platform for protesters in recent weeks and security forces have opened fire when mourners started demonstrating.
The authorities have blamed armed groups, infiltrators and Sunni Muslim militant organisations for provoking violence at demonstrations by firing on civilians and security forces.
Western and other Arab countries have mostly muted their criticism of the killings in Syria for fear of destabilizing the country, which plays a strategic role in many of the conflicts in the Middle East.
(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Yara Bayoumy and Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Sami Aboudi in Cairo; writing by Dominic Evans; editing by Diana Abdallah)