(Reuters) - Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shot two protesters in the capital Damascus on Friday and fired in the air to break up thousands of anti-government demonstrators in the commercial hub of Aleppo, activists said.
It was the second consecutive day of street protests in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, where a visit by U.N. ceasefire monitors a day earlier saw demonstrators mass outside the gates of the Aleppo University before security forces drove them off.
"The people want the fall of the regime!" chanted protesters who footage distributed by opposition activists showed marching through the streets in one of the biggest rallies in Aleppo since the start of the anti-Assad uprising 14 months ago.
In Damascus, activists said security forces shot and killed two protesters in the southern district of Tadamun, wounding at least five people, and that the central Syrian town of Rastan was shelled for the fourth consecutive day.
The revolt began as a peaceful protest movement but has become increasingly militarized as rebels fight back against Assad's violent crackdown. Syria restricts media access, making it difficult to verify accounts of the unrest.
Similar rallies took place in several other cities across Syria as U.N. monitors struggle to oversee a shaky ceasefire aimed at pulling Syria out of bloodshed.
Video footage which activists said documented the Damascus incident showed a group of young men carrying a bleeding youth as the sound of gunfire rippled in the background. There was no independent verification of the account from Syria.
The protests came against the backdrop of crisis in the main formal opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella organization dominated by Islamists which has failed to win international recognition as the sole legitimate representative of opposition to Assad.
SNC head Burhan Ghalioun, an academic based in France, told Reuters on Thursday he would step down as soon as a successor was found, following charges that he failed to unite the organization with activists in the country.
Ghalioun's opponents also fault him for acting as a secular front for a formal opposition in which Islamist groups have the strongest hand, while the insurgency is drawn from Syria's Sunni Muslim minority and at time employs rhetoric demonizing the Alawite sect to which Assad belongs.
The head of the month-old observer mission - which earlier this week saw one of its teams caught in a gun and bomb attack that activists said killed at least 21 people - said it was slowing bloodshed, but could not stop it entirely.
"No volume of observers can achieve a progressive drop and a permanent end to the violence if the commitment to give dialogue a chance is not genuine by from all internal and external actors," Major General Robert Mood told reporters in Damascus.
The United Nations estimated some 9,000 people had been killed since the start of the unrest, before announcing it could no track casualties. Syria says foreign-backed "terrorists" have killed about 2,600 soldiers and police.