Human rights activists and witnesses said Syrian security forces opened fire on tens of thousands of protesters in the volatile southern city of Daraa, killing 25 people and wounding hundreds. But state-run TV said 19 policemen and members of the security forces were killed when gunmen opened fire on them.
It was the first significant claim of casualties by the Syrian government, which has contended that armed gangs rather than true reform-seekers are behind the unrest — and it could signal plans for a stepped-up retaliation.
Protest organisers have called on Syrians to take to the streets every Friday for the past three weeks, demanding change in one of the most rigid nations in the Middle East.
Protests were held in several cities across the country Friday as the movement showed no sign of letting up, despite the violent crackdowns.
Syria's National Organization for Human Rights said at least 32 people were killed nationwide on Friday. That lifts the death toll from three weeks of protests to more than 170 people.
The protests have shaken the regime of President Bashar Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years. Assad, a British-trained eye doctor, inherited power from his father 11 years ago and tried to help the country emerge from years of international isolation and lift Soviet-style economic restrictions.
But despite early promises of social and political reform, Assad has slipped back into the autocratic ways of his father.
Assad has offered some limited measures of reform as the protests gathered steam, such as firing local officials and forming committees to look into replacing the country's despised emergency laws, which allow the regime to arrest people without charge. On Thursday, Apr 7 he granted citizenship to thousands of Kurds, fulfilling a decades-old demand of the country's long-ostracized minority.
But the persistent demonstrations underline how Assad''s gestures of change have failed to mollify a growing movement that is raising the ceiling on its demands for concrete reforms and free elections.