DAMASCUS, Syria -- In a central square, government supporters set up a stage and speakers for a rally, watched over by a towering portrait of President Bashar Assad that draped four stories of Syria's sanctioned central bank.

A short drive away, burly men in leather jackets wielding guns and truncheons massed outside a police station in the restive Midan neighborhood, near the site of a deadly bombing last month, ready to respond to the first sign of protest.

So began another Friday in the Syrian capital, Damascus. Long a bastion of support for the Assad family's four-decade rule, the increasingly divided city has become the scene of dueling demonstrations between supporters and opponents of a 10-month uprising inspired by last year's "Arab Spring" revolts.

The contrast between the protests is stark.

While the government's supporters sang and danced for hours Friday, protected by police who blocked traffic from surrounding streets, its opponents waged a furtive game of cat and mouse with security forces in Midan's winding back alleys.

"Every day there is a protest here," said an opposition supporter, moving swiftly through narrow streets with blacked-out anti-government graffiti on the walls.

Moments later, a gunshot popped in the distance, followed by several more shots. Rounding a corner, he reached an area full of men and young boys, some of them on bicycles, who were fanning out in different directions.

"Don't go," they said as he passed. "Live ammunition."

A young activist began leading the way to safety, then broke into a sprint, saying, "The dogs are behind us!"

Ducking into a building, he raced up a flight of stairs and took a seat on a step to wait for the security forces to pass. The neighborhood is surrounded, he said.

But small groups of residents are still gathering after midday prayers for flash demonstrations lasting just five to 10 minutes.

He said pro-government militiamen known as the shabiha, a name derived from the Arabic word for ghost, show up with knives to break up the protests.

"Last week we had five wounded," he said. "This Friday they didn't come with knives and swords. This Friday they came with bullets."

Similar scenes played out across the country as thousands took to the streets to demand the downfall of the government and the release of political prisoners, many of whom they say remain behind bars despite an amnesty announced this week.

Some also chanted for the withdrawal of Arab League observers, whose presence they charge has done little to stem the violence that has claimed more than 5,000 lives since March, according to United Nations estimates.

Arab foreign ministers will meet Sunday in Cairo to decide whether to extend the monthlong mission to monitor the government's compliance with a league-negotiated peace plan calling for the withdrawal of security forces from cities and residential areas, the release of detainees and dialogue with its opponents.