By Khaled Yakoub Oweis
AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian forces killed at least 32 civilians on Friday, including 23 in the capital Damascus, in an intensifying crackdown on protests against President Bashar al-Assad, activists said.
It was the highest death toll in the central neighborhoods of Damascus since the uprising erupted four months ago in the southern Hauran Plain near Syria's border with Jordan.
"Tens of thousands of Damascenes took to the streets in the main districts for the first time today, that is why the regime resorted to more killings," said one activist by telephone from Damascus. He declined to be named for fear of being arrested.
The killings prompted the opposition to cancel their planned National Salvation conference in Qaboun neighborhood of Damascus on Saturday after security forces killed 14 protesters outside a wedding hall where the conference had been due to take place, opposition leader Walid al-Bunni told Reuters.
"Secret police also threatened the owner of the wedding hall. We decided to cancel the meeting to save lives," Bunni said by telephone from Damascus.
Bunni said prominent opposition figures and activists would still hold a separate conference in Istanbul on Saturday.
The rest of those killed in Damasacus were in Barzeh, where one protester had died, and in Rukn al-Din quarter of the city, where security forces fired protesters killing eight people.
Two protesters were killed in the southern suburb of Qadam, said the Local Coordination Committees.
Assad, facing the greatest challenge to 40 years of Baath Party rule, has sought to crush demonstrations that broke out in March. But although rights groups say some 1,400 civilians have been killed, the protests have grown.
"These are the biggest demonstrations so far. It is a clear challenge to the authorities, especially when we see all these numbers coming out from Damascus for the first time," said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Activists and witnesses said police fired live ammunition and teargas in the capital Damascus and suburbs. They killed four in the southern city of Deraa, the cradle of the uprising.
Three protesters were shot dead in the northwestern province of Idlib, near the Turkish border, where troops and tanks have attacked villages, the witnesses and activists said. Two people were also killed in the city of Homs.
A witness in the Rukn al-Din district of Damascus said hundreds of young men wearing white masks resisted security forces with sticks and stones.
"Down, down Bashar al-Assad", they chanted.
In the city of Hama, scene of a 1982 massacre by the military, live video footage filmed by residents showed a huge crowd in the main Orontos Square shouting "the people want the overthrow of the regime".
At least 350,000 people demonstrated in the eastern province of Deir al Zor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Syrian forces shot dead two pro-democracy protesters there on Thursday, residents said.
ALLIANCE WITH IRAN
Assad, from Syria's Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Islam, is struggling to put down widening demonstrations in outlying rural and tribal regions, as well as Damascus suburbs and cities such as Hama and Homs.
Mass arrests and heavy deployment of security forces, including an irregular Alawite militia known as shabbiha, have prevented demonstrations in central neighborhoods of Damascus and the commercial hub of Aleppo, which are generally better off than the rest of the country.
Activists estimate the number of secret police on the streets of Damascus has more than doubled since protests started but the economy has stagnated and the Syrian pound is coming under pressure, with the exchange rate rising to 53 pounds to the dollar, compared with 46 pound to the dollar before the uprising erupted.
To counter that, Syria's main ally, Iran, is considering offering $5.8 billion in financial help, including a three-month loan worth $1.5 billion to be made available immediately, French business newspaper Les Echos said, citing a report by a Tehran think-tank linked to Iran's leadership.
International sanctions are targeted at Syria's leaders, not at its banks and companies. But France and the United States are pressing for tougher penalties, and a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the crackdown, following attacks on both countries' embassies in Syria.
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny and Oliver Holmes in Beirut and Andrew Quinn in Istanbul; Writing by Jon Hemming, Editing by Maria Golovnina)