SYRIAN security forces opened fire on mourners at a mass funeral yesterday, after at least 37 people were reported killed in some of the country's bloodiest anti-government violence so far.
Human-rights groups said several people were wounded as police tried to disperse angry crowds in the southern city of Deraa, a major flash-point for protests against President Bashar al-Assad.
It followed clashes in the city on Friday as demonstrators poured on to the streets to demand greater political freedom.
The National Organisation for Human Rights, a Syrian pressure group, said 30 people died in Deraa and seven more in other cities after security forces opened fire "indiscriminately".
"What is happening in Syria is a flagrant violation of (human rights)," the group said. "Syrian security committed what could be called a crime against humanity."
Early yesterday, security forces also fired live ammunition to disperse protesters in the port city of Latakia, long regarded as the heartland of the ruling elite. Residents reported hearing heavy gunfire overnight as security forces broke up a sit-in.
"The shooting went on for almost two hours -- it was frightening," said one.
As the three-week-long protests continue to gather impetus, Mr Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades, has offered political reform, firing unpopular officials and pledging to scrap draconian emergency laws.
But his robust efforts to quell the demonstrations suggest he has no intention of allowing his regime to fall victim to the so-called Arab Spring that has swept through Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
Authorities in Damascus sought to paint a different picture of the weekend's violence, depicting it as the work of "plotters pushed by known foreign sides", rather than political reformers.
Officials claimed that 19 policemen were also killed, though in the face of government-imposed media blackouts, there was no way to verify the claims.
It was, however, the first claim of casualties among the security forces, which some observers believe could signal a pretext for a much harsher clampdown.
More than 170 people have been killed since the protests began in Syria, which is regarded as one of the most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.