Security forces allegedly killed 24 people across Syria on the first Friday of the fasting month of Ramadan [YouTube]
Government tanks and armoured vehicles have been rolled out in force in the northeastern city of Deir ez-Zor and around Homs in central Syria, an activist said.
"About 250 tanks and armoured cars have been deployed in four districts of Deir ez-Zor," Rami Abdel Rahman, of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told the AFP news agency.
He said tanks were also posted around the airport in Deir ez-Zor, where many residents have fled in fear of military action.
In Homs, "many armoured cars and other army vehicles have been posted in the Bab al-Sibaa district", Abdel Rahman said, adding that activists in the city had reported gunfire from early morning.
The deployment came after security forces killed at least 24 civilians on Friday in a nationwide crackdown on anti-government protesters.
As the violence continued on Saturday, Walid al-Muallem, Syria's foreign minister promised "free and fair" general elections by the end of the year. He claimed the new parliament will represent the aspirations of the Syrian people.
The four-year term of the current parliament expired earlier this year and President Bashar al-Assad is expected to set a date for new legislative elections before the end of 2011.
Al-Muallem pledged to press ahead with reforms and said dialogue was the only way forward for Syrians.
"The ballot box will be the determining factor and it will be up to the elected parliament to review adopted draft bills to decide on them," he said during a meeting he held with Arab and foreign ambassadors in Damascus.
Syria is coming under increasing international criticism over the ongoing siege of Hama. A government assault on the city began last weekend after residents calling for Assad's ouster took over the city of 800,000 and barricaded it against regime forces.
Shortly after al-Muallem's annoucement, security forces arrested Walid al-Bunni, a prominent opposition figure and former political prisoner, Abdel Rahman said.
"The Syrian security services on Saturday evening arrested opposition figure and ex-political prisoner Walid al-Bunni" and his sons Moayed and Ayad, Britain-based Abdel Rahman told AFP in Cyprus by telephone.
Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, said in an interview to be published Sunday, that Assad has no future in politics.
"I don't believe that Assad has a political future ahead of him which is supported by the Syrian people", Westerwelle told the German Sunday newspaper Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.
In-depth coverage of escalating violence across Syria
Westerwelle's ministry is reportedly in talks with members of the opposition in Syria.
The Assad government has sought to crush a democracy movement with brutal force, killing around 1,650 civilians and arresting thousands of dissenters since March, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Gulf Arab states on Saturday called for an "immediate halt to violence and bloodshed" in Syria after security forces killed at least 24 civilians in the latest round of anti-government protests.
The six-member Gulf Cooperation Council also expressed concern over the "increasing violence and the excessive use of force which resulted in killing and wounding large numbers."
The GCC called for "resorting to wisdom, and implementing serious and necessary reforms that preserve the rights of the Syrian people, and meet their aspirations."
On Friday, Barack Obama, the US president, and the leaders of France and Germany, President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel, pledged "additional measures" against the Syrian regime.