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Published April 13, 2012, 09:06 AM

Syrian protesters test fragile truce

BEIRUT (AP) — In the first major test of a U.N.-brokered truce, tens of thousands of Syrians poured into the streets Friday for anti-government protests, activists said.

BEIRUT (AP) — In the first major test of a U.N.-brokered truce, tens of thousands of Syrians poured into the streets Friday for anti-government protests, activists said. Security forces used live fire, tear gas and beat some protesters, but there was no immediate sign of widescale shelling, sniper attacks or other potential violations of the cease-fire.

At least three protesters were shot dead by security forces, activists said.

President Bashar Assad's regime has cracked down on protest rallies in the past and suggested it would not allow them to resume Friday, insisting protesters need to seek permission first. Syrian forces tightened security in public squares and outside mosques.

A major outbreak of violence at a chaotic rally could give government forces a pretext for ending the peace plan, which aims to calm a year-old uprising that has killed 9,000 people and pushed the country toward civil war.

The truce is at the center of international envoy Kofi Annan's six-point plan to stop the bloodshed and launch talks on a political transition. A 13-month uprising against Assad had become increasingly violent in response to his brutal crackdown.

Annan's spokesman said the plan has been "relatively respected" despite the continued presence of government troops and heavy weapons in population centers. Ahmad Fawzi said an advance team of U.N. observers was poised to enter Syria if the Security Council gives the green light later Friday. A larger contingent of up to 250 observers could be approved next week if the truce holds, he said.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy said the Syrian regime must be closely monitored. "I don't believe Bashar Assad is sincere," he told French television station i-Tele on Friday. "I don't believe in the cease-fire, sadly. I believe - and it's what I was discussing with Barack Obama yesterday - that at the very least, observers must be sent to find out what's happening."

Earlier Friday, Syrian troops fought with rebels near the border with Turkey, and other scattered violence was reported.

Tight security measures, including widespread deployment of plainclothes agents of the feared Mukhabarat intelligence service, prevented large-scale marches in the Syrian capital, said Damascus-based activist Maath al-Shami. He said many regime opponents chanted anti-government slogans inside mosques, but were unable to take the marches outside due to the heavy security presence.

"The big security campaign succeeded in limiting the size of the protests," al-Shami said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, estimated that tens of thousands of protesters calling for Assad's ouster marched in cities and towns across Syria.

The Observatory said one marcher was killed in the opposition stronghold of Hama as he and others tried to reach the main Assi Square, which protesters had occupied for several weeks last year. Two others were killed and 11 wounded in the southern town of Nawa when protesters came under fire from security forces as they gathered in the central square, said area activist Adel al-Omari.

The grassroots Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said that across Syria, at least seven protesters were killed by troops Friday. It was impossible to confirm casualty tolls because the country is largely sealed off from journalists.

In Damascus, troops and pro-government militiamen known as Shabiha surrounded a mosque in the Qadam neighborhood and beat people staging a protest inside the house of worship, said the LCC. In another Damascus neighborhood, Barzeh, demonstrators called for the downfall of the regime, the LCC said. In Aleppo, troops fired tear gas at marchers gathering outside the Grand Mosque, the group said.

Fadi al-Yassin, an activist who took part in a protest in a town in the northern province of Idlib, said about 6,000 people participated, including women and children. Protesters dispersed peacefully after the march and troops did not open fire at them, said al-Yassin, who did not want to name the location, for fear of government reprisals.

The truce, the first brokered by the international community since the Syria crisis erupted in March 2011, calls for the Syrian government to allow peaceful protests. Opposition activists had urged supporters to take to the streets after Friday prayers to test the regime's compliance.

The Syrian government has broken promises in the past and so far ignored a key provision of Annan's plan to pull troops back to barracks. Opposition leaders say Assad doesn't want to ease the clampdown because that would unleash protesters to flood the streets and escalate the movement to bring down the president.

Mass protests were held during the early days of the uprising, but such demonstrations have become smaller and are dispersed quickly because of the violent crackdown and heavy presence of Syrian security forces.

On the diplomatic front, Annan has urged the 15-nation U.N. Security Council to authorize an observer mission that would help keep the peace.

Fawzi, his spokesman, said an advance team was prepared to travel to Syria quickly to prepare for a full mission of up to 250 observers on the ground. He also quoted Annan as telling the council "that we need eyes on the ground, in light of the fragile calm that appears to be prevailing. We need eyes on the ground quickly to observe and monitor the situation."

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Associated Press writers Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey, and John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.

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Bassem Mroue can be reached on twitter at http://twitter.com/bmroue

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