Syrian security forces reportedly have fired live ammunition at protesters as they left a mosque after Friday prayers in the besieged city of Deir al-Zour, as mass demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad's regime continue in many parts of the country.
Residents of Deir al-Zour who live near the Harwil Mosque said uniformed members of Syria's military aimed AK-47s at the mosque and fired, causing the main air-conditioning unit to catch fire.
With the sound of bullets whizzing through the neighborhood, worshipers were seen running in panic to take cover in alleyways.
There was no immediate confirmation of casualties in Deir al-Zour.
Meanwhile, residents of the central Syrian city of Hama say protesters there also came under fire after Friday Ramadan prayers, with at least two demonstrators shot dead.
The two youths reportedly were killed near the al-Tawhid and al-Sahaba mosques in northern residential neighborhoods.
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the shootings took place as antigovernment rallies in Hama and the city of Homs attracted tens of thousands of protesters.
It was the first mass demonstration in Hama since government troops launched a 10-day military assault on that city in early August, killing more than 100 people.
Syrian authorities have barred most independent media from covering the five-month-old protests in the country, making it difficult to verify events on the ground in the unrest.
But it is clear that Assad's forces have intensified assaults on towns and cities across the country since the start of the Muslim fasting month to try to subdue mounting dissent against the ruling family.
Earlier on August 12, Syrian government troops were out in force, carrying out sweeping arrests of suspected protesters ahead of rallies that were called after Friday Prayers.
Rights activists say security forces shot dead a man and a woman shortly after dawn. They say one man was killed while trying to flee when security forces began arresting residents in the Damascus suburb of Saqba.
The woman was killed during a security force operation at dawn on August 12 in the town of Kahn Sheikhun in the northwestern Idlib province.
Witnesses reported hearing intense gunfire as dozens of tanks, troop carriers, and government loyalists in civilian cars assaulted Kahn Sheikhun.
The violence comes after rights activists said at least 16 people were killed on August 11 in a crackdown against dissent in other parts of Syria.
Rights activists say they have confirmed more than 2,150 deaths in government crackdowns since protests against Assad's regime began in March.
The death toll includes more than 1,700 civilians and some 400 members of the security forces -- many of whom are said to have been killed by Assad loyalists after they defected in order to protect civilians.
'Every Day Is Friday'
Friday has become a focal point of antiregime protests in Syria, with hundreds of thousands of people pouring into the streets of major cities each week to demonstrate on the weekly day of rest, when key Muslim prayers are held.
The hours immediately after the conclusion of Friday Prayers are particularly sensitive during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
A Facebook group called "The Syrian Revolution 2011" -- a driving force behind Syria's protests -- declared in a message posted on the Internet, "We only kneel before God."
That group is also urging Syrians to join mass demonstrations throughout the holy Muslim fasting month, which started on August 1, saying that "every day in Ramadan is a Friday."
U.S. Urges More Pressure On Assad
The latest violence comes despite mounting international pressure on Assad's regime to end its crackdown.
The Turkish news agency Anatolia reported on August 12 that President Abdullah Gul sent a letter to Assad earlier in the week warning him not to leave reforms until it's too late.
The letter was delivered by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu when he visited neighboring Syria and held talks with Assad on August 9.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on August 11 urged China, Russia, and India to step up pressure on Assad. Clinton told the U.S. television network CBS that more sanctions are needed against Assad's regime.
"What we really need to do to put the pressure on Assad is to sanction the oil and gas industry, and we want to see Europe take more steps in that direction," Clinton said.
"And we want to see China take steps with us. And we want to see India, because India and China have large energy investments inside Syria."
Meanwhile, officials in Washington say U.S. President Barack Obama is preparing for the first time to explicitly call for Assad to step down from power.
The White House said Obama spoke with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan by telephone on August 11. A White House spokesman said the two leaders agreed on the need for a "transition to democracy" in Syria.
compiled from agency reports