12/30/2011 10:57 EST | Updated 02/29/2012 05:12 EST

Syrian day of protest draws thousands

Anti-government demonstrators flooded into cities across Syria after activists called for a nation-wide day of protest Friday, while clashes with security forces left at least 22 dead.

Hundreds of thousands gathered across the country with the largest crowds — some reaching 250,000 — reported in Idlib and Hama provinces, said Rami Abdul-Raham, who heads the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Other massive rallies were held in Daraa province and the Damascus suburb of Douma, he said.

Activists called for a massive turnout Friday, partially through social media.

"On Friday we will march to the squares of freedom, bare-chested," al-Jazeera quoted one Facebook page as saying.

The uprising, which started in March, has been spurred on by the presence of Arab League observers, who entered the country earlier this week on a one-month mission to help implement a peace plan signed by President Bashar al-Assad on Dec. 19.

The turnouts Friday were some of the largest reported since the unrest began in March.

"Syrian citizens want to make a change in Syria, want to transfer the country from dictatorship to democracy," Mazen Darwish, director of the Syrian Centre for Media and Free Expression, told CBC News Friday.

Darwish said he appreciated the work being done by the Arab League observers but said there were too few of them.

"Up to now we have 50 or 60 monitors coming to Syria," he said. "We are talking about 300 protest areas."

Darwish, who is a human activist and journalist in Syria, also questioned whether the observers have the required skills or resources to report on the violence.

Syrians need to protest because Assad has so far resisted calls for change, he said, although those demonstrations should avoid violence.

"It's a peaceful movement, it's for [democracy] not a civil war," Darwish said.

Russia lauds Arab League monitors

The head of the Arab League mission, Sudanese Lt.-Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa, has also come under fire from critics because he held key security positions in the regime of President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted on international charges of committing genocide in Darfur.

Others have voiced concern about whether Arab League member states, with some of the world's poorest human rights records, were fit for the mission to monitor compliance of a plan to end to the crackdown on political opponents by security forces.

Pro-Assad groups, meanwhile, turned out for rallies in Damascus and several other cities Saturday, waving portraits of the president in an apparent bid to show the regime has public support during the observer visit.

Assad has faced increasing international pressure, including the imposition of sanctions by Canada, the United States and the European Union, to end the bloody crackdown, which the UN estimates has killed more than 5,000 people.

Russia, one of Assad's few remaining allies, voiced its approval of the observer mission so far, saying the situation was "reassuring."

The monitors are the first Syria has allowed into the country and they are supposed to ensure compliance with the terms of an Arab League plan requiring the government to remove its security forces and heavy weapons from cities, start talks with the opposition and allow human rights workers and journalists into the country. It also calls for the release of all political prisoners.

It is impossible to verify casualty figures in Syria because the government prevents international journalists from reporting freely in the country.