Syrian security forces have killed at least 27 demonstrators in the southern city of Daraa, amid fresh pro-reform demonstrations, hospital sources and witnesses say.
The deaths occurred after Friday prayers when security forces opened fire with rubber-coated bullets and live rounds to disperse stone-throwing protesters, a witness told Al Jazeera.
Amateur video uploaded to social media websites purportedly showed wounded protesters being treated in the Omari mosque in Daraa.
The state-run SANA news agency had a different take on the events in the flash-point town, saying 19 members of the security forces were killed and 75 people wounded by "armed groups" during the protests.
"According to an interior ministry source, there were 19 martyrs among the police and security forces and 75 wounded by armed groups which used live ammunition in Daraa," the agency said.
In the east, thousands of ethnic Kurds also demonstrated for reform despite the Syrian president's offer this week to ease rules which bar many Kurds from citizenship.
Separate protests erupted in the western port city of Latakia, Tartus, Baniyas, Homs, Edlib in the northwest of the country and in other cities.
Gunfire was also heard in Harasta, a suburb of the capital, Damascus, where three people were said to have been killed. Another two protesters were killed in Homs, according to unconfirmed reports.
Al Jazeera's Rula Amin, reporting on Friday from Douma, another Damascus suburb, said "it's a new situation in Syria".
"We saw thousands of people taking to the streets after Friday prayers, from all walks of life: young and old, professionals and not professionals, educated, not educated, there were some Islamists, some nationalists.
At least 10 people were killed last Friday in Douma, seen as another focal point of protests where demonstrators have set up a vigil outside the mosque.
Popular demonstrations calling for greater freedoms have shaken Syria for the last three weeks.
|Tribes in Daraa resent the wealth and power amassed by al-Assad's minority Alawite community [AFP]
President Bashar al-Assad has responded with a blend of force against protesters, and reform gestures, most recently aimed at ethnic Kurds.
Al-Assad's overture to Kurds, who make up about 10 per cent of Syria's 20 million population, came after reports that authorities had released 48 Kurdish prisoners.
Even so, in the northeastern city of Qamishli, Kurdish youths chanted: "No Kurd, no Arab, Syrian people are one. We salute the martyrs of Daraa."
Rights group Amnesty International said on Friday that it has recorded the names of 171 people killed since the first protesters died in Daraa on March 18.
The group based its tally on information received from rights activists, lawyers and other sources and said the majority appeared to have been killed by live ammunition fired by the security forces.
The protests have raised concerns that unrest could fuel ethnic and sectarian tensions in the country.
Friday demonstrations, which online activists have this week dubbed the "Friday of Steadfastness", mark the biggest challenge so far to al-Assad's 11-year rule.
In Daraa, people first demonstrated last month against the arrest of children who had scrawled pro-democracy graffiti inspired by the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings on school walls.
Sunni Muslim tribes there resent the wealth and power amassed by the minority Alawites, the offshoot sect of Shia Islam to which al-Assad belongs.
Mobile phone lines had been cut or were restricted over the last two days, the residents said.
Protesters chanted: "The people want the overthrow of the regime", an echo of slogans elsewhere in the Arab world.
The Baath Party, in power since a 1963 coup and run by al-Assad's father, Hafez, until his death in 2000, has tolerated no dissent and has used emergency law to justify arbitrary arrests.
A prominent demand of the protesters is for the law to be repealed.
Al-Assad has ordered a panel to draft anti-terrorism legislation to replace emergency law, but critics say it will probably grant the state much of the same powers.
He also ordered an investigation into the civilian deaths in Daraa and Latakia last month.
Mazen Darwish, an activist in Damascus, told Al Jazeera that the pledged reforms were positive but not enough.
"It's not about this problem or that problem. It's about transforming Syria from dictatorship to democracy," he said.
"To change the constitution, open up political life, to have free press and political parties and lift the emergency law."
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies