| Human rights groups say nearly 200 people have been killed in Syria, a figure the government claims is much lower
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused authorities in Syria of barring injured protesters from receiving medical care in several cities as it seeks to quell unprecedentd pro-reform protests.
The group spoke with protesters in the towns of Daraa, Harasta and Douma, all of which have seen protests in recent days. A witness in Daraa said that security forces prevented ambulances from reaching the wounded, and shot at protesters who tried to help.
"Ahmad [the witness] said that he later saw the bodies of a doctor, a nurse, and an ambulance driver who, other witnesses told him, were shot when their ambulance tried to reach the wounded protesters," the group reported.
HRW says that 130 people have been killed in Daraa alone, along with an unknown number in other cities.
"And it could be higher. We're worried that a lot of bodies have not been returned," Nadim Houry, a Beirut-based researcher for the group, said. "And in Lattakia, in Baniyas, it's just impossible to confirm the numbers so far."
Syrian human rights activists have cited higher figures. Wissam Tarif, the executive director of the Insan organisation, says more than 170 people have been killed. Amnesty International has also cited higher numbers, reporting 171 deaths last week.
The country's National Organisation for Human Rights issued a statement on Sunday accusing the government of using excessive force against protesters. Rights groups have also accused the Syrian government of arbitrarily detaining hundreds of protesters. Allegations of torture are also widespread.
The Syrian government acknowledged on Monday that it has used force against some protesters, which it accused of trying to "sow distrust" across the country. It has consistently offered lower death tolls than independent human rights groups, and insists that most of the victims were members of the security forces.
On Friday, for example, human rights groups said 37 people were killed across the country. Most of the deaths were in Daraa - the epicentre of anti-government protests - where 27 were reportedly shot and killed.
SANA, citing an "official source", claimed that 19 people were killed - most of them members of the security forces - and that dozens of other "unarmed policemen" were wounded by gunfire from "armed gangs".
'Gangs' or regime loyalists?
The Syrian government has stated repeatedly that the "gangs" are behind much of the violence sweeping the country. It accuses these groups of targeting police, soldiers, and paramedics.
And while the government has not officially speculated on their motives, it has floated murky allegations of an external plot to overthrow Bashar al Assad, the country's president.
Cham Press, a website with close ties to the Syrian government, published documents that purportedly detail a US-Saudi scheme to topple the president.
Eyewitness accounts confirm that armed gangs have been operating in several Syrian cities, but they blame the violence on the government, not shadowy foreign conspirators.
"Broadcasting on live state television the misdeeds of so-called agents provocateurs that state security somehow fails to stop... will only add insult to injury for the many Syrians who believe that authorities are at least partly to blame," wrote Peter Harling, the Syria project director at the International Crisis Group.
A witness told Al Jazeera on Sunday that armed gangs were indeed roaming the streets in the northern city of Baniyas, "shooting at army and residents at the same time". The witness blamed the violence on "regime loyalists".
Meawhile, in Lattakia, residents have blamed the violence on the Shabiha, a militia with ties to the ruling family (and which Assad reportedly disbanded after taking office in 2000). Activists claim that the same group was involved in shootings in Al-Baida on Tuesday.
None of these claims can be independently verified. The Syrian government has expelled dozens of journalists from the country. Two from the Associated Press were expelled on Tuesday with just an hour's notice and mobile phone and internet access have been restricted in many of the areas affected by protests.