Syrian security forces killed at least 36 people on Friday as they pursued a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters after activists called for a no-fly zone to protect civilians and soldiers deserting the army, a rights group said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said most of the fatalities were in Hama, in the north, and Homs in the centre, and that security forces encircled mosques to prevent protesters from demonstrating after weekly Muslim prayers.
|A Syrian man living in Libya holds an anti-Syrian President Bashar al-Assad|
Live rounds were fired to disperse protesters, killing at least 35, wounding more than 100, while 500 were arrested, the Britain-based Observatory said.
"Twelve civilians were killed in various neighbourhoods of Hama, 20 others in the city of Homs and one civilian was killed in Qusayr, in the region of Homs," the Observatory said.
Two civilians were killed and 10 wounded in Tsil, in the southern province of Daraa, cradle of more than seven months of anti-regime dissent, the group said.
And a 15-year-old boy was killed in Idlib province.
Hama and Homs are at the front line of the anti-regime protests that have rocked Syria since mid-March, since when the UN estimates more than 3,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the bloody repression.
The army has been carrying out operations in Qusayr for several weeks, amid fighting there between troops and suspected army deserters, activists say.
The Observatory's chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP in Nicosia that Homs has seen the "highest number of martyrs to date" since the protest movement unfolded. "Homs has given 40 percent of the martyrs of the Syrian revolution," he said.
The violence was the deadliest in nearly six months to occur on a Friday, the day worshippers emerging from weekly prayers at mosques defy the security forces and swarm the streets to rally against the regime.
The previous high was on May 6, when 36 died. The worst was on April 22, when toll reached 72.
Each Friday protesters rally around a theme. This time they demanded the imposition of a no-fly zone to protect civilians and to encourage soldiers to defect -- like the UN-mandated no-fly zone over Libya that led to the demise of dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
"We call on the international community to impose a no-fly zone so that the Syrian Free Army can function with greater freedom," the Syrian Revolution 2011, one of the motors behind the dissent, said on its Facebook page.
A defecting army officer who has taken refuge in Turkey, Colonel Riad al-Asaad, claimed in July to have established an opposition armed force called the "Syrian Free Army," but its strength and numbers are unknown.
On October 4, permanent UN Security Council members Russia and China vetoed a proposed resolution that would have threatened the Syrian leadership with "targeted measures" unless it halted the bloody repression.
According to the Observatory that rallying call was taken up by protesters in Kafr Nabl, in the northwestern province of Idlib which borders Turkey, as well as in Homs, where demonstrators staged massive protests in defiance of a security clampdown.
In the restive Balaa neighbourhood of Homs around 20,000 people marched calling for the fall of President Bashar al-Assad's autocratic regime, it said, with similar scenes repeated in the Damascus neighbourhood of Barzeh.
Young protesters marched in Barzeh but were quickly overcome by the security forces who arrested 40 demonstrators, the watchdog said.
Meanwhile, activists said heavy gunfire and five explosions were heard in Qusayr, a restive town near the Lebanese border, where security forces sought to break up demonstrators streaming out of several mosques.
Suspected army defectors and troops reportedly also clashed in Hama.
Troops also raided the northwestern town of Kafruma, arresting 13 people, including a woman and her 12-year-old son, while the funeral of an army deserter in Maaret al-Numan, turned into an anti-regime rally. Protesters in Deir Ezzor, further east, also came under fire.
And in the United States a Syrian-born US citizen pleaded not guilty in court on Friday to charges he spied on anti-Assad protesters and handed recordings to Syrian intelligence in a bid to silence the opposition.
Mohamad Anas Haitham Soueid, 47, was remanded in custody by US District Judge Claude Hilton, who set a March 5 trial date.
The Syrian embassy has vehemently denied the accusations, chalking them up to a "campaign of distortion and fabrications."
Meanwhile, Spain summoned Syria's ambassador over allegations that members of his embassy abused Syrian opposition sympathisers on Spanish soil and warned of "appropriate measures," the foreign ministry said.