SYRIAN security forces have shot dead at least 34 people, including a child, as pro-democracy protests swept the country, with demonstrators pressing on with calls for more freedom in defiance of a fierce crackdown, activists say.
In Washington US President Barack Obama piled pressure on Syria, saying it was of “acute concern” for Washington and Israel — days after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and key aides were hit by US sanctions.
Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency and rights watchdog Human Rights Watch expressed concern about an influx of Syrians who have fled to neighbouring Lebanon to escape the violence at home.
The child was among 12 people killed in the central city of Homs.
Another 15 died in the town of Maaret al-Naaman, located near the western city of Idlib, the activists said.
They said two people were also killed in the southern region of Daraa, epicentre of protests that have gripped Syria since March 15, one in the Damascus suburb of Daraya, one in the port city of Latakia, two in the eastern town of Deir Ezzor and one in the central town of Hama.
“The victims in Maaret al-Naaman were gunned down at the entrance of the city where many people were converging from other nearby towns to join the protest,” an activist said.
Another activist in Homs said security services stormed a local hospital and carried away several wounded people along with the body of a victim.
State television blamed the violence on armed gangs which, it said, had opened fire on civilians and security forces in the region of Idlib and on the outskirts of Homs, resulting in unspecified casualties.
Mr Assad’s government has blamed the violence on “armed terrorist gangs” backed by Islamists and foreign agitators.
Protests were also reported in several other towns across Syria, including in Damascus where an activist said security forces quickly dispersed a rally outside a mosque.
In the mainly Kurdish region of Ain Arab, near the northern city of Aleppo, hundreds took to the streets holding olive branches and chanting “No to violence, yes to dialogue,” said Radif Mustapha, head of a Kurdish rights group reached by telephone.
“No one is calling for the downfall of the regime,” he said, as protesters could be overheard shouting “azadi, azadi,” or freedom in Kurdish.
In Banias, thousands of men, women and children marched, with many of the men bare-chested to show proof they were unarmed, Rami Abdel Rahman, of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said.
The accounts could not be independently verified as foreign journalists are prevented from travelling in the country to report on protests challenging Mr Assad’s authoritarian regime.