Witnesses and rights group say that at least 26 people have been killed today across Syria as thousands of protesters took to the streets for a "day of defiance" against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
The “Insan” human rights NGO said that the majority of the casualties came when Syrian forces shot dead 16 people in Homs, the country's third-largest city and the scene of deadly police clashes last month.
Meanwhile, Syrian state-run news agency SANA said that an "armed criminal group" opened fire fired on army and police forces in the city, killing an officer and four policemen.
Reports from Tel, north of the capital, said security forces there had also fired at a crowd of several hundred protesters, injuring several.
Protests were reported in a number of other cities, including the coastal town of Banias, where more than 5,000 protesters carried olive branches and Syrian flags.
A rally in the capital, Damascus, drew several hundred people after Friday prayers.
A video clip posted on the Internet today purportedly from the rally showed protesters chanting, "The people want to overthrow the regime!"
Security forces reportedly opened fire at the rally, although it was not immediately clear if there were any casualties.
The casualty toll is difficult to independently verify, as foreign journalists have been barred from entering the country.
Tanks had been deployed in several cities across the nation ahead of the planned rallies.
EU Sanctions Coming
According to rights group, at least 560 protesters and some 100 soldiers have been killed in Syria since clashes erupted in mid-March, amid public demands for greater freedoms and an end to endemic corruption.
International pressure to end the violence has been building on the Assad regime ever since, and today, reports out of Brussels said that European Union diplomats agreed a package of sanctions against 13 Syrian government officials.
Officials are quoted as saying the EU agreed on an arms embargo and on an assets freeze and a visa ban for the officials, but that the sanctions will not apply to President Assad.
The measures, which must still be approved by the 27 heads of government, are expected to come into force next week.
In late April, U.S. President Barack Obama imposed new sanctions against Syrian figures, including a brother of Assad in charge of troops in the flashpoint city of Daraa.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner today reiterated the call for protesters’ rights to be upheld.
"We continue to press the Syrian government to cease violence in carrying out violence against innocent citizens who are simply demonstrating and trying to state their aspirations for a more democratic future for Syria and are being met with, as you said, arbitrary arrests and violence," he said.
Last week, the United Nations Security Council failed to agree on a European- and U.S.-backed statement condemning the Syrian government’s crackdown, amid objections from Russia and China.
Meanwhile, residents in Daraa, the cradle of the uprising, said their city was still under siege despite the government's pledge on May 5 to withdraw troops from the streets following an 11-day military operation to crush dissent.
Aid workers from the Red Cross and Red Crescent said today that they had been allowed by the Syrian government to delivery emergency supplies to the city on May 5.
“In all, we got some medical assistance in -- some medical items -- but also dressing kits, some food parcels that were given to the national society branch in Daraa to be distributed, and as well some drinking water -- 32 cubic meters of drinking water -- to Daraa itself, and then to be distributed on the spot," said Patrick Youssef, the deputy head of the Red Cross for the Near and Middle East region.
Syrian authorities today also reportedly detained prominent opposition leader
Riad Seif at the rally in Damascus, according to his daughter and human rights campaigners.
The 64-year-old Seif, a cancer sufferer, has spent a total of eight years in prison on charges of "weakening national morale" widely seen as retaliation for his criticism of Assad's autocratic rule.
The revolt in Syria has been inspired by similar uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt during what observers have labeled the “Arab Spring.”
Angered by the brutal government crackdown on demonstrators, which the United States has denounced as "barbaric," many Syrians are now calling for Assad's overthrow.
Assad, in turn, has blamed "armed terrorist groups" for instigating the violence and appears determined to quell the revolt, which poses the biggest challenge to his family's 40-year rule.
The violence culminated last week when forces loyal to Assad fired at protesters who had rallied in several cities after Friday prayers, killing more than 60 people according to rights groups.
compiled from agency reports