Syrians Demand Change in Face of Military Crackdown

VIDEO: A Look at the Problems in the Middle East
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Syrians calling for democracy once again defied a brutal military crackdown to take to the streets by the thousands across the country. However, the death toll was far lower than it has been on past Fridays, when demonstrators have been protesting following midday prayers.

Despite reported orders from President Bashar al-Assad to his forces to not fire on demonstrators, a human rights activist said at least three people were killed and warned the number may tick higher as reports emerge.

Today was called the "Friday of Free Syrian Women," coming days after one of Assad's closest aides claimed the regime had the upper hand in the two-month uprising, adding the she believe the worst was over.

Friday's protests proved the opposite, a leading activist said, pointing to the fact that the masses came out despite the omnipresence of army tanks and soldiers.

"I think it's amazing what happened today," Wissam Tarif, director of the human rights group Insan, told ABC News in a telephone interview. "We're talking about the army everywhere, security apparatus suppressing people for eight weeks, 11,000 people arbitrarily detained, schools being turned into detention camps. And they still went. I think the regime got shocked today."

The United Nations said Friday it believes the civilian death count to be between 700 and 850. Activists said 10,000 or more have been rounded up, specifically men between 15 and 50, who make up the bulk of the protesters.

Another activist in the Syrian capital of Damascus warned that the protests may be losing steam, saying that the regime's crackdown has worked in forcing people to stay home and government officials have indicated they may be willing to talk.

"I believe there must be a peaceful and political solution," said Abed Al Kareem Rehabi of the Syrian Human Rights League.

Protest flashpoints Baniyas and Homs have been under siege, and tanks surrounded the town of Hama on Thursday, a dark reminder of the 1982 crackdown there by Assad's father that left between 10,000 and 20,000 dead, according to Amnesty International.

In unusually harsh language, the State Department has called the crackdown "barbaric."

"Treating one's own people in this way is, in fact, a sign of remarkable weakness," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on a trip to Greenland, but she did not call for Assad to step down.

The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on top Syrian officials, but not Assad.

There has been a virtual media blackout in Syria, with the international media refused entry by the regime.

At the border with Jordan today, a steady stream of trucks and cars came from Syria, delivering goods and going about business as best they could.

One of the few people who agreed to speak came from near Daraa, the southern town where the protests were ignited in early March. He spoke of checkpoints every few hundred yards, and confirmed the widespread, arbitrary arrests.

"No one can move," the man said. "They've arrested so many people."

Asked if he wanted the protests to continue or life to return to the way it was, he said change was essential.

"Is there anything more beautiful than freedom?" he asked.

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