More than 40 people have been reported killed in the Syrian city of Hama after government forces opened fire on anti-government protesters.
The protest on June 3, which took place in the same city where thousands of Syrians died in a failed 1982 revolt against the regime, is thought to be one of the largest demonstrations since the popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's administration began 10 weeks ago.
Reuters quoted a witness as saying that troops began firing on demonstrators "from rooftops." According to the news agency, the witness personally "saw scores of people falling in Assi square and the streets and alleyways," adding that "Blood was everywhere."
The AP agency quoted an eyewitness as saying, "It is a real massacre. People were running, shouting. We ran up to people's homes and hid there until the gunfire died down."
Syrian troops reportedly also pounded the central town of Rastan with artillery and gunfire, killing at least two people.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the protests on June 3 appeared to be the biggest since the uprising began in mid-March, with people gathering in large numbers in cities and towns across the country, including in several Damascus suburbs.
As the protests swelled, the government shut down the country's internet, which has been an important tool for the dissemination of news and videos of the protests.
The protests on June 3 are thought to have been fueled in part by the escalation of anger over the torture and killing of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb, who became a symbol of the uprising after a video of his stricken body was posted on YouTube. Authorities have denied he was tortured.
Reports said that demonstrators in Dara chanted, "No dialogue with the killers of children," while in other places, including Ras al-Ain, crowds called for freedom:
Rights groups say the death toll in Syria since protests began in mid-March against Assad's rule has now reached 1,100.
In 1982, Assad's father and predecessor Hafez Assad crushed a Sunni uprising by shelling Hama, killing 10,000 to 25,000 people, according to estimates from Amnesty International.
Syria's government says the current unrest is the work of "armed terrorist gangs" backed by Islamists and foreign agitators.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed alarm at the heightened crackdown against antigovernment protesters and demanded an immediate end to the "violent repression" and "serious human rights abuses" by Syrian forces.
He also reiterated his call for a full, transparent, and independent investigation into the killings.
written by Golnaz Esfandiari with agency reports