DAMASCUS, Syria -- Violence erupted around Syria on Friday as troops opened fire on protesters in several cities and pro- and anti-government crowds clashed on the tense streets of the capital in the most widespread unrest in years, witnesses said.
Soldiers shot at demonstrators in the restive southern city of Daraa after crowds set fire to a bronze statue of the country's late president, Hafez Assad, a resident told The Associated Press. Heavy gunfire could be heard in the city center and witnesses reported several casualties, the resident said on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
An activist told the AP that witnesses had reported one demonstrator shot dead by security forces in the coastal city of Latakia, and another slain in the central city of Homs. He said several people had been hospitalized in Latakia.
In the capital, Damascus, people shouting in support of the Daraa protesters clashed with regime supporters outside the historic Umayyad mosque, hitting each other with leather belts.
The violence erupted after tens of thousands of Syrians took to the streets across the country, shouting calls for greater freedoms in support of a more than week-long uprising in Daraa, according to witnesses, activists and footage posted online.
The demonstrations and ensuing crackdown were a major escalation of the showdown between President Bashar Assad's regime and the crowds in Daraa who -- inspired by pro-democracy unrest elsewhere in the Arab world -- began protesting conditions in the drought-stricken south last week in demonstrations that have now spread around the country.