Syrians brave crackdown in 'Day of Defiance' (UPDATES)

Thousands of Syrians took to the streets on Friday, braving reprisals from the country’s authoritarian regime, for a “Day of Defiance” against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

European Union governments, meanwhile, agreed Friday to impose asset freezes and travel restrictions against Syrian officials responsible for a violent crackdown on anti-government protests, Reuters reports.

Various media reports Friday, based on accounts from dissidents and eyewitnesses, said that thousands of people were demonstrating in cities including capital Damascus and the coastal city Banias.

One activist in Damascus told the Associated Press that hundreds were marching in the central neighborhood of Midan, chanting, “The people want the downfall of the regime.”

And in Banias, more than 5,000 people marched carrying Syrian flags and olive branches, witnesses told AP.

The BBC meanwhile reported that protesters and security forces had clashed near a Damascus mosque, with protesters throwing stones and the military firing tear gas.

More than 565 civilians and 100 soldiers have been reported killed since an anti-government revolt began in March, inspired by successful uprisings in Tunisia and then Egypt. At least 2,500 people have been detained as part of a violent crackdown, which the U.S. has described as "barbaric".

Syria blames the unrest on a foreign conspiracy and "terrorist groups" that it says have taken advantage of protests.

A witness told AP that security forces had completely cordoned off the Damascus suburb of Douma, the scene of recent protests, to stop people entering or leaving.

A witness near Douma said he saw a train carrying about 15 army tanks heading north Thursday evening toward the central province of Homs, another site of recent violence.

In the southern city of Daraa, where the army announced the end to an 11-day military operation Thursday, residents said troops were still in the streets, causing some would-be demonstrators to be wary of taking part in a planned protest Friday.

"There's a tank stationed at each corner in Daraa. There is no way people can hold a protest today," a resident said by telephone. "It means more killing. Daraa is taking a break. We don't want to see more killing or face tank guns."

In the town of Tal, north of Damascus, witnesses told Reuters news agency that security forces had fired at protesters.

Earlier, extra troops were deployed in Homs, Syria's third city and scene of a bloody crackdown last month, and the central town of Rastan.

Separately, two eyewitnesses have confirmed for GlobalPost that Syrian army personnel fired on members of the country's secret police in the western city Homs, where forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been violently cracking down on protesters in recent weeks.

It is the first reported incident of the Syrian army siding with the opposition and actively protecting protesters, and could point to an important shift in the military's loyalties.