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Syrian forces fire on protesters, kill 30

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Syrian security forces opened fire Friday on thousands of protesters demanding regime change, killing more than 30 people in a sign that President Bashar Assad is prepared to ride out a wave of rapidly escalating international outrage.

The UN said it is sending a team into Syria to investigate, and the European Union is expected to place sanctions on Syrian officials next week -- both significant blows to Assad, who has tried to bring Syria back into the global mainstream.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States was pressing the Syrian government to cease "violence against innocent citizens who are simply demonstrating and trying to state their aspirations for a more democratic future."

Friday's protests spanned the nation in the latest spasm in what has become a weekly cycle of mass protests followed by a swift and deadly crackdown.

But pressure was mounting on Assad, who insists the unrest is a foreign conspiracy carried out by "terrorist groups." More than 580 civilians and 100 soldiers have been killed since the revolt began, rights groups say.

"What it looks like here is a systematic attack on a civilian population, a political decision to shoot to kill unarmed demonstrators, and that could very well be a crime against humanity," Human Rights Watch counsel Reed Brody said.

Even as protests were raging on Friday, Syria's prime minister announced the formation of a committee to study ways to combat corruption. In the past, the overtures would have been seen as significant concessions. But protesters were largely unmoved, inspired by the uprisings sweeping the Arab world and enraged at the mounting death toll in Syria.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets Friday despite a security chokehold on the most volatile areas along with a stepped-up intimidation campaign.

A prominent human rights activist said 30 people were killed Friday, all of them protesters. The toll included 15 people in Homs, six in Hama, five in the seaside city of Latakia and one in Deir El-Zour, the activist said.

Footage on YouTube showed protesters in Hama frantically trying to resuscitate a man lying on the ground with a bloodied face and shirt, while people shouted "God is great!" State-run television said an army officer and four policemen were shot dead by a "terrorist group" in Homs.

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