Amman: Syrian forces yesterday fired at thousands of protesters heading to Daraa, the heart of a six-week uprising against President Bashar Al Assad, killing at least 16 and leaving dozens others wounded, witnesses said.

The rallies showed that protesters would not be cowed by heavy military deployments, scores of killings and mass arrests across Syria in a brutal crackdown on the biggest popular challenge ever to 48 years of authoritarian Ba'ath Party rule.

The official state news agency Sana said an "armed terrorist group" killed four soldiers and kidnapped two others in the city where Al Assad sent tanks and troops to crush resistance on Monday.

The latest violence broke out after Friday prayers as thousands of people hit the streets across the country demanding Al Assad's removal and pledging support for the residents of Daraa, a city of 120,000 where the unrest originated on March 18.

"The people want the overthrow of the regime!" demonstrators chanted in many protests, witnesses said.

Damascus rallies

Defying violent repression which a Syrian rights group says has killed 500 people, more demonstrations flared in the central cities of Homs and Hama, Baniyas on the Mediterranean coast, Qamishli in eastern Syria and Harasta, a Damascus suburb. Activists also reported protest rallies in Damascus.

Al Jazeera television aired footage from the village of Mahala near Daraa and from Baniyas and Homs. Protesters waved Syrian flags and banners saying: "No to the siege of Daraa," "A powerful country is the one whose people are free" and "We are preachers of freedom and peace, not saboteurs".

A witness in Daraa said Syrian forces fired live rounds at thousands of villagers.

"They shot at people at the western gate of Daraa in the Yadoda area, almost three km from the centre of the city," he said. Another contacted by phone said he saw dozens who were injured being taken away by protesters in their cars.

Another resident said one man had also been killed by a sniper in the city.

Wissam Tarif, director of the Insan human rights group, said two people were killed in protests in Latakia. The killings could not be immediately confirmed. Foreign journalists have mostly been expelled from Syria.

Brotherhood urges masses to protest

Syria's exiled Muslim Brotherhood, which has been largely on the sidelines of the protests so far, called on Syrians to take to the streets yesterday in support of Daraa.

It was the first time that the Brotherhood, ruthlessly crushed along with secular leftist movements during the 30 years of Hafez Al Assad's rule, had called directly for protests.

The group said government accusations that Islamists were behind the unrest were baseless and aimed at fomenting civil war and undermining demands for political freedoms.

But a Jordanian Islamist, Abu Mohammad Al Maqdisi, said that Muslims were obliged to join the protest and that the overthrow of Al Assad's minority Alawite rule would be a step towards implementing Sharia law.