Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets across Syria following Friday prayers, activists said, protesting against President Bashar al-Assad and defying an intensified military crackdown on their uprising.

Demonstrations demanding an end to Assad's rule broke out in the Medan district of Damascus, the besieged city of Homs, Latakia on the coast and the southern city of Deraa.

About 400,000 protesters came out in the eastern province of Deir Ez Zor, on the border with Iraq's Sunni heartland, activists said.

"Demonstrators have begun to march in various Kurdish towns" in the northeastern province of Hasaka, including Amuda, Derbassiya and Ras al-Aim, said Abdel Karim Rihawi, head of the Syrian League for Human Rights.

Police and armed groups loyal to Assad used batons to attack thousands of pro-democracy protesters in the country's mainly Kurdish city of Qamishli on Friday, witnesses said.

Hundreds more were marching in the southern town of Suweida, and demonstrations were also taking place in the northwestern province of Idlib, particularly in Tastanas and Kafar Nubol.

At the same time, telephone communications and electricity were cut in Daraya and Douma, just outide the capital.

Dedicated to Homs

The latest protests are dedicated to the central city of Homs, the latest focus of the crackdown on the protest movement, where government forces have killed at least 22 people since Monday, according to activists.

At least five civilians were killed in Homs overnight as tanks attacked residential areas of the city, activists said.

A Syrian military official quoted by state media on Friday said that "armed terrorist groups" in Homs have killed five soldiers and wounded three officers, warning that the armed forces were ready to respond with force.

Clashes have reportedly been taking place there between Syrian army soldiers and defectors.

Members of the Local Co-ordination Committee, a rights group, in Homs told Al Jazeera that there are about 100 defectors from the Syrian army engaged in the fighting.

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"Elements of the army and security forces are deployed in the districts of Qabun and Rukneddin. Barricades were set up at the entrances, limiting exits and entries," said Rami Abdel Rahman of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"Thousands of security officers are patrolling and conducting searches of homes and making arrests," he told the AFP news agency.

The deployment came just hours ahead of the protests after weekly Muslim prayers on Friday, the main day of dissent against Assad's rule since a pro-democracy movement broke out in mid-March.

Security forces also made a show of strength in Douma, on Damascus's outskirts, especially in the market and main mosque, conducting identity checks of people including women at roadblocks.

"Security officers have terrified residents while walking ostentatiously and by showing their weapons," the observatory said.

"Many people have begun to leave in fear of arbitrary arrest" after the detention of many youths in the past few weeks, it added.

Nationwide unrest

Activists had called for demonstrations on Friday against Assad on Facebook group The Syrian Revolution 2011, a catalyst of more than four months of anti-regime protests.

In the Damascus suburb of Harasta, near Douma, about 1,700 protesters marched after evening prayers late on Thursday, chanting anti-regime slogans before security forces dispersed them with tear gas.

Night demonstrations calling for the fall of the regime were also held in the suburb of Jisrin, and in cities and towns across the country.

The Local Co-ordinating Committees organising the protests meanwhile warned people against falling for the Syrian regime's attempts to "stir up" sectarianism.

"The criminal regime in power in Syria will continue to provoke sectarian discord. It plans assassinations and car bombs in front of schools and other buildings in different regions targeting specific communities," it said in a statement.

"The regime will continue to arm some people in the Alawi community into thinking they are threatened by other communities."

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies