BEIRUT (AP) - Syrian security forces killed at least eight people Friday, activists said, as thousands of people poured into the streets across the country calling for the downfall of President Bashar Assad's autocratic regime.
The protests came hours after Syrian troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships seized control early Friday of another northwestern town in the latest military operation to quell the dissent.
Since the protests erupted in mid-March, Assad has unleashed the military to crush street demonstrations. Human rights activists say more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed and 10,000 detained.
"What is our guilt? We just demanded freedom and democracy nothing else," said Mohamed, who spoke to The Associated Press from a refugee camp in neighboring Turkey and asked to be identified only by his first name.
"I saw people who were beheaded with machine-gun fire from helicopters," and a man tortured to death when security forces "poured acid on to his body," he said.
Mohamed is among some 9,600 people are seeking shelter in Turkish refugee camps. He fled with his family as the military besieged Jisr al-Shughour, a rebellious town the government recaptured last Sunday.
He said a sugar factory in the city was turned into a jail where they "hold quick trials and execute anyone who they believe participated in protests."
The Syrian crackdown has brought international condemnation and sanctions on the regime. On Friday, a French official said the European Union was preparing new, expanded sanctions that would target the economy.
The Syrian government claims armed gangs and foreign conspirators are behind the unrest, not true reform-seekers. In what has become a weekly back-and-forth between activists and the government, both sides offered divergent death tolls.
Syria's state-run TV said Friday that a policeman was killed and more than 20 were wounded when "armed groups" opened fire at them. It added that six police officers were wounded in Deir el-Zour when gunmen attacked a police station in the area.
But the Local Coordination Committees, a group that documents the protests, and Syria-based rights activist Mustafa Osso told The Associated Press that eight people were killed, all of them civilians, citing witnesses on the ground.
Three people were killed in the central city of Homs, two in the eastern town of Deir el-Zour and two in the Damascus suburb of Harasta. The 16-year-old died in the southern village of Dael.
It's impossible to independently confirm many accounts coming out of Syria. Foreign journalists have been expelled from the country and local reporters face tight controls.
Meanwhile, troops in large numbers poured into Maaret al-Numan, 28 miles (45 kilometers) from the Turkish border, said rights activist Osso. He said other forces were now massing around Khan Sheikhon, to the south, where gunmen attacked army forces earlier this month.
Omar Idilbi of the Local Coordination Committees said government forces had taken full control of Maaret al-Numan, a town of 100,000 on the highway linking Damascus, the capital, with the major city of Aleppo.
Many of its residents had fled as troops swept through Idlib province in recent days.
There was no immediate word on casualties in Maaret al-Numan.
Protests were reported across the country Friday, with thousands pouring into the streets of the central cities of Homs and Hama, the southern villages of Dael and Otman, coastal cities of Latakia and Banias, the Damascus suburbs of Qudsaya and Douma as well as the capital, Damascus.
In the northeast, about 2,000 protesters marched in the towns of Amouda and Qamishli, chanting for the regime's downfall, the Local Coordination Committees said. In the southern village of Dael, activists said cracks of gunfire could be heard at the center where a protest was held.
Some of the protesters shouted against Assad's cousin, Rami Makhlouf, the country's most influential businessman who is widely reviled by Syrians for alleged corruption. On Thursday, apparently as an overture to the protesters, he announced that he will now concentrate on charity work.
"Go play another game Makhlouf," protesters shouted in Daraa, a city near the Jordanian border where the uprising began in mid-March.
Friday has become the main day for protests in the Arab world, and Syrians have turned out every week in large numbers nationwide, inspired by democratic revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
The opposition has attached a name to each Friday's campaign, naming this one "The Day of Saleh al-Ali," an Alawite leader who led an uprising against French colonial rule in the 20th century.
Using an Alawite figure's name was meant to show that Assad's opponents were not rising up over sectarian concerns. The Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.
Alawite dominance has bred resentment, which Assad has worked to tamp down by pushing a strictly secular identity in Syria. But the president now appears to be relying heavily on his Alawite power base, beginning with highly placed Assad relatives, to crush the resistance.
The unrest in Syria appeared to be spilling over into neighboring Lebanon. On Friday, a Lebanese security official said assailants opened fire and lobbed a grenade at few hundred people who were holding an anti-Assad protest in a Sunni neighborhood of Tripoli in the north. There was no immediate word on casualties.
The Tripoli neighborhood has been the scene of repeated clashes over the past three years between Sunnis in Tabbaneh and Alawites from the nearby Jabal Mohsen neighborhood.
Hacaoglu reported from Guvecci, Turkey. AP writer Zeina Karam contributed to this report from Beirut.