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Syrian security forces fire on rallies, killing 40

UN inspections are rejected by government

BEIRUT - Syrian security forces killed at least 40 people yesterday during antigovernment demonstrations across the country, human rights activists said, as the government of President Bashar Assad intensified a crackdown that has failed over eight months to extinguish a popular uprising.

Meanwhile, Syrian officials turned down a renewed request from United Nations nuclear inspectors to visit suspected secret nuclear sites during talks in Damascus. Diplomats yesterday described the talks as failing to advance an investigation of the Arab nation’s hidden atomic program.

Meetings between Syrian and International Atomic Energy officials Monday and Tuesday had been highly anticipated after Damascus pledged to end more than three years of stonewalling the IAEA inspectors. Since 2008 the agency has been stymied in attempts to seek more information over what the agency says was a clandestine nuclear program centered around a nearly completed reactor.

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The offer for cooperation came after the IAEA’s 35-nation board reported Damascus to the UN Security Council in June on the basis of an agency assessment that a facility destroyed by Israeli war planes in 2007 was a nuclear reactor meant to produce plutonium when completed.

Damascus says the target was a non-nuclear military building but has refused to allow IAEA officials to return to the site after an initial visit that produced samples with traces of uranium and other nuclear footprints.

Most of the deaths yesterday occurred in central Syria, the most restive region in the country, with 21 people killed in Homs and 14 in Hama. Both cities are at the front line of the uprising against Assad and have witnessed mass destruction, arrests, and killings since demonstrations broke out. Overall, the United Nations estimates that 3,000 people have been killed since demonstrations began.

The large number of people killed, the most on any Friday since May 6, when 36 demonstrators were shot dead, demonstrated the government’s rejection of international pressure to end the violence and a determination to rely on force to silence the challenge to four decades of Assad family rule. Friday - the day of prayer and rest for Muslims - has become the day of protest across Syria and the Arab world since the outbreak of popular calls for change.

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“They are killing intentionally, they are killing to send a message that they are still in control,’’ said Omar Idlibi, an activist with the Local Coordination Committees, who lives in Lebanon. “They are committing political suicide. The killings won’t solve the crisis but could lead to international intervention.’’

Protesters who took to the streets after yesterday’s noon prayers repeated an earlier demand for protection from the international community in demonstrations labeled “Friday of no-fly zone.’’

A UN-mandated no-fly zone over Libya - and a bombing campaign by NATO - helped bring down Moammar Khadafy’s government. Although many Syrian opposition leaders oppose military intervention, protesters have been pleading for several weeks for the international community to intervene.

The Syrian National Council, the most prominent opposition gathering, has also called for international protection, although it did not explicitly call for a military intervention.

Along with the street protests, a group of military defectors calling itself the Free Syrian Army has been trying to organize an armed insurgency. With its leaders in camps in Turkey, the group has taken credit for several attacks against Syrian security forces.

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“We call on the international community to impose a no-fly zone so that the Free Syrian Army can function with greater freedom,’’ read a post on a Facebook page that said it was the official page of the “Syrian revolution.’’

In Homs, activists said that security forces loyal to the government attacked the city and villages surrounding it, shooting randomly at people. Mohammad, an activist reached by phone, said troops turned a train station into a military base, shooting at anyone who approached it. A resident who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal said armed men roamed some streets on motorbikes firing shots at people.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a watchdog group operating in exile, said about 20,000 people marched in the Balaa neighborhood in Homs, calling for Assad’s ouster.

Activists with the Local Coordination Committees also said that three people were killed in the southern town of Daraa and two in the town of Saraqeb in the northwestern province of Idlib, near Turkey.