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Syrians protest by thousands as violence goes on

BEIRUT - Buoyed by the opposition's control of a town near the Syrian capital, thousands of people held anti-government protests Friday, chanting for the downfall of the regime. At least eight people were killed by security forces across the country, activists said.

In Egypt, two Arab League officials said the organization is likely to extend its observer mission in Syria, despite complaints from the Syrian opposition that it has failed to curb the bloodshed in the country.

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One of the largest demonstrations Friday was in the mountain town of Zabadani, where some 12,000 people took to the streets to celebrate their success in repelling government troops.

President Bashar Assad's forces attacked Zabadani, some 17 miles west of the capital, for six days, sparking fierce fighting that involved heavy bombardments and clashes with army defectors. On Wednesday, government tanks and armored vehicles pulled back, leaving the opposition in control of the town.

"It's a natural reaction to the victory in Zabadani, it has lifted people's morale," an activist in the town said of Friday's demonstration. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The Syrian opposition has on several occasions throughout the uprising gained control of a town or city, but ultimately forces loyal to Assad have retaken them. It is unusual, however, for the army to take so long to recapture a town so close to the capital.

Arab countries and the West have so far failed to reach any consensus on how to counter the regime crackdown which, along with other violence, has left an estimated 5,400 people dead over the past 10 months.

Foreign ministers for the Arab League were set to meet Sunday in Cairo to discuss the future of a one-month observer mission aimed at halting violence in Syria, which expired on Thursday.

Two senior officials in the 22-member pan-Arab body said the discussions are leaning toward keeping the 150-member mission in place because the time is not right for "escalation" and the international community is not yet ready for intervention in Syria.

They said several League members opposed to the extension of the mission had changed their position in recent days. The officials agreed to talk about the discussions ahead of the Sunday meeting on condition of anonymity.

Activists have said that the Arab observers have failed to curb the bloodshed. Many in the Syrian opposition have called for the dispatch of foreign troops to Syria to create safe zones for dissidents, or even a more wide-ranging military mission similar to the air campaign which helped Libyan rebels bring down dictator Muammar Qaddafi last year.

Qatar, a harsh critic of the Syrian crackdown on protesters, called last week for Arab troops to be sent to the country.

Syria has said it "absolutely rejects" any plans to deploy Arab troops to the country, while Russia Wednesday threatened to block any U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force.

One League official disputed that the observer mission had failed. He said the 150 observers have helped to "break the barrier of fear," especially in and around the capital Damascus. Some Arab League officials have said that the ministers meeting on Sunday may decide to double that number to 300 observers.

Human Rights Watch urged the Arab League to make its monitors' report public "to address increasing concerns that its monitoring mission is being manipulated by the Syrian authorities."

Syria's regime has grown increasingly isolated over the past 10 months as it waged a brutal military crackdown on an anti-government uprising inspired by the Arab Spring revolts across the region.

Oil Minister Sufian Allaw said Thursday that Western sanctions on Syrian oil exports have cost the country $2 billion since September.

Activists said that least eight people were killed in Syria Friday, including six activists in two villages in the country's northern Idlib province and a warrant officer whose body was found dumped in the street in the southern city of Daraa after he had been kidnapped from his home earlier.

The Local Coordination Committees activist network accused pro-regime forces of the warrant officer's killing and said he had been helping the opposition.

Thousands of regime opponents protested across the country following Muslim prayers Friday, some of them calling for the withdrawal of the observers.

"Arab League, your hands are now soiled with the blood of Syrians," said one banner carried by protesters in a Damascus neighborhood, a video of which was posted on the Internet.

In addition to Zabadani, some of the largest protests were held in the Damascus suburb of Douma, another hub of regime dissent. Activists said around 20,000 people demonstrated there.

Protesters also called for the release of thousands of detainees, denouncing an amnesty declared by Assad on Sunday for "crimes" committed during the 10-month uprising. His government blames the violence in Syria on terrorists and armed gangs that it claims are part of a foreign conspiracy to destabilize the country.

Many in the opposition say the amnesty is merely a media smoke screen.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Observatory, said about 4,000 detainees were released this week, many of them on bail and pending trial. But he said 20,000 more were believed to be detention, not counting thousands of soldiers who were imprisoned for trying to desert.

"It was an amnesty for the media, nothing more" he said.

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