Up to ten people may have been killed as protests broke out in three Syrian cities against Baath Party rule after prayers on Friday, two days after President Bashar al-Assad termed mass protests demanding freedoms a foreign conspiracy.
Hundreds of people took to the streets in and around Damascus, where security forces fired tear gas at protesters in the suburb of Douma, and in the coastal cities of Latakia and Banias, they added.
Syria's state news agency said worshippers in Deraa and Latakia, scenes of protests and deadly clashes last month, gathered after the prayers to call for accelerated reforms and chanted tributes for the dead.
A witness told AFP by telephone that seven people were killed and dozens of others were wounded when security forces opened fire on protesters in Douma, a town 15 kilometres (nine miles) north of Damascus.
The death toll could be more than 10, he said but he only provided AFP four names for those killed.
Dozens killed & wounded
Witnesses told Reuters that the Syrian security forces killed at least three protesters in the southern Damascus suburb of Douma.
The three were among at least 2,000 people who chanted "Freedom. Freedom. One, one, one. The Syrian people are one," at Municipality Square in Douma when security forces opened fire to disperse them, they said.
However, the state news agency said there had been no confrontations between the worshippers and security forces, and reported calm across the country. It also said there had been gatherings in several Syrian provinces supporting "national unity and stability".
Another witness told Reuters that the security forces and President Assad loyalists attacked protesters with batons as they left the Rifaii mosque in the Kfar Sousseh district of Damascus after Friday prayers, a witness said.
Around 200 worshippers chanted slogans in support of the southern city of Deraa, where protests erupted against Baathist rule two weeks ago.
At least six protesters were arrested and dozens were beaten as they made their way out of the mosque, the witness told Reuters by telephone from the mosque complex.
"The real cause, the ultimate cause, is that we have been... beaten in our own streets, silenced, for more than 40 years," said one activist, who preferred to remain anonymous.
"But the most pressing cause, in today's rallies, is the president's speech, which dashed all our hopes and expectations," he told AFP. "We have been hearing the same speech for decades."
The protests are being staged after weekly Muslim prayers for a third week in succession.
50 years of emergency
Assad, who is facing domestic pressure unprecedented in his 11-year rule, failed to lift almost 50 years of emergency rule on Wednesday in his first address to the nation since the protests demanding greater freedoms erupted more than two weeks ago.
He instead said there was a "conspiracy" targeting unity in Syria, blaming the country's "enemies" for taking advantage of the needs of the people to incite division in the country ruled by emergency law since the Baath party seized power in 1963.
The Syria Revolution 2011, a wildly popular yet anonymous Facebook group that has emerged as a motor of the protests, has called for rallies at all mosques after noon prayers until their demands for "freedom" are met.
It offered tips on Friday for sending out mass text messages and protection from tear gas.
The protests have turned deadly, however, with activists estimating more than 160 people killed in clashes with security forces, mainly in the southern governorate of Daraa, a tribal area at the Jordanian border, and the coastal city of Latakia.
While small protests initially surfaced in the capital Damascus, they were quickly contained by Syria's notorious security forces.
AFP reporters have witnessed activists being dragged away from Friday rallies during the past two weeks.
Officials put the death toll at about 30 and have accused Muslim extremists and "armed gangs" of pushing peaceful rallies into violence with the aim of inciting sectarian unrest in Syria, which prides itself on coexistence in a region torn by confessional strife.
In a conciliatory move, the president on Thursday ordered a string of reforms, including a study of new laws on the media and political pluralism and plans to tackle the plight of 300,000 Kurds who have been denied Syrian citizenship for close to half a century.