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Mass protests erupt across Syria, despite army presence

Information minister vows crackdown will continue

The Syrian government has stationed army units around the capital and other cities as tens of thousands of demonstrators, demanding the ouster President Bashar al-Assad, took to the streets.

Information Minister Adnan Mahmud, meanwhile, told Agence France-Presse that the crackdown on protesters would continue — as they have done since pro-democracy demonstrations against Assad erupted nearly six weeks ago — setting the scene for violent confrontations later on Friday.

Syrian Republican Guard trucks equipped with machine guns and carrying soldiers in combat gear patrolled the circular road around Damascus ahead of Friday prayers, a witness told Reuters.

Activists had called for mass protests following Friday prayers to commemorate the killings of over 100 protesters April 22 via a statement on the Facebook page of Syrian Revolution 2011.

"To the youths of the revolution, tomorrow we will be in all the places, in all the streets. ... We will gather at the besieged towns, including with our brothers in Deraa," the statement said, according to Al Jazeera.

It said demonstrations also would be staged in other flashpoint towns such as Homs in the center of the country and the coastal town of Baniyas, in the northwest.

Meantime, the outlawed Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood, crushed by the regime in 1982, has for the first time called directly for protests in Syria.

A declaration by the Brotherhood, sent to Reuters by its leadership in exile Thursday, said: "Do not let the regime besiege your compatriots. Chant with one voice for freedom and dignity. Do not allow the tyrant to enslave you. God is great."

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The looming showdown comes as the United Nations Human Rights Council prepared for a special session on Syria in Geneva, and the European Union was meeting in Brussels to consider a wide range of sanctions, including a suspension of 210 million euros in grant and loans each year.

Speaking hours before the EU's 27 ambassadors met, Pierre Vimont, secretary-general of the EU's foreign service, said: "There is a rather large agreement that something should be done to send the right message."

"It's not sanctions for the sake of sanctions," he said, AFP reported. "It's to try to get a message through to Damascus that they should stop the repression and go back to the right path of dialogue with their opposition."

Other measures being considered included the shelving of a bilateral agreement that would have enabled Syria to win preferential trade deals with the EU, it's main trading partner, and travel bans and asset freezes against "senior members of the regime involved in the repression" also will be considered along with an arms embargo.

Vimont reportedly said: "my impression from the contacts we have is there will be probably a large group of countries that are ready to go ahead" with sanctions.

Not all such calls for international action have been successful.

Earlier in the week, China and Russia had helped to block an initiative by the U.S. and its European allies for the U.N. Security Council to condemn the Syrian government's attacks on peaceful protesters.

The situation ''does not present a threat to international peace and security," Russia's deputy ambassador, Alexander Pankin, reportedly said. ''The violence does not all originate on one side.''

China's ambassador, Li Baodong, said that not addressing the situation ''appropriately'' would jeopardize peace and stability in other regions and ''have a major active impact on the recovery of the world economy.''

In the absence of UN action, several EU governments summoned Syrian ambassadors on Wednesday to condemn the violence in Syria and insist that Assad end the crackdown.

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Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain were spurred into action by criticisms that the international community has dragged its feet over Syria while focusing on Libya.

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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Protesters raise the Palestinian flag in defiance of Syrians leaving Palestinian areas and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday.