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Syrian death toll rises as clashes continue

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • NEW: State-run SANA reports militants ambushed an armed forces unit, killing 9
  • Security forces attacked worshippers leaving a mosque, a witness says
  • The government vowed a stiff crackdown on unrest Saturday
  • Activist group says 37 demonstrators were killed in Syria on Friday

(CNN) -- At least four people died and 17 others were injured by sniper shots as Syrian army and security forces gathered in the northwestern city of Banias, an eyewitness said Sunday, the same day state news reported an ambush on an armed forces unit that killed nine.

The forces were mostly gathered in the northeastern neighborhood of al-Qoz, said the witness, who is also a doctor. Of the four killed and 17 injured, all were Banias residents, he said.

Early Sunday, security forces attacked worshippers as they left a mosque in a Sunni area of the city, according to the eyewitness. However, other residents gathered and were able to chase off the forces' seven vehicles. All cellular service and land lines were down Sunday in the city, the eyewitness said.

Meanwhile, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported that an armed forces unit was moving in the area when it was ambushed by militants. Nine people died, including two officers, and dozens more were injured, according to the report.

Armed groups opened fire on ambulances, preventing them from reaching and aiding the wounded, SANA said.

The government in Damascus on Saturday declared its intention to crack down on what it described as unrest in the country provoked by outside instigators.

"There's no more room for leniency and tolerance in enforcing law," the interior ministry said.

The tough statement came amid report of clashes Saturday in the western coastal city of Latakia. A human rights activist said Saturday that hospital officials told him live ammunition was being used to disperse protesters.

Syria issued the statement after widespread protests on Friday, in and near Daraa and in Latakia, Banias, Qamishli, Homs, Douma, Moathamia, Daraya, Tal and Hama. The demonstrations reportedly led to the deaths of more than three dozen protesters.

Protesters have been saying that their peaceful demonstrations have been met with force by Syrian security.

The National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, an activist group, said there were 37 demonstrators killed across the country on Friday, including 30 in Daraa province, four in Damascus province and three in Homs province. It said security forces used tear gas and live fire against unarmed civilians, made dozens of arrests and raided homes.

Wissam Tarif, a human rights activist, cited hospital officials as saying protesters in Latakia were being treated early Saturday for live bullet wounds. He also said funerals were scheduled in Daraa on Saturday for protesters who died Friday and said witnesses told him about arrests in Damascus and Aleppo.

But Syria blames instigators and saboteurs for infiltrating peaceful demonstrations and feeding violent confrontations. For example, the government said 19 security forces were killed in Daraa on Friday and dozens of others were injured in violence caused by "armed groups" firing at citizens and "unarmed security forces."

The government is aware of the widespread and international condemnation toward Syria. Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallemis explaining the government's position to foreign ambassadors in Damascus, according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency, or SANA.

The interior ministry said demonstrators have taken to the streets with demands that were handled by the government, which announced decrees and responses to various grievances.

"However, there are some spiteful individuals, outsiders and those who were compelled by known foreign parties, accompanied by blatant instigation by satellite channels and internet sites, that didn't like the initiatives and the responses to the citizens' just demands that are being carried out," the ministry said.

The ministry said attackers have torched official establishments and military and security personnel "still committed to not opening fire" have been killed and wounded. It urged citizens to identify the "criminals" responsible and report them to authorities.

"It became obvious that these people do not want reform and are not concerned with popular demand or prohibiting the use of weapons, taking advantage of the latter and infiltrating demonstrators or people seeing off martyrs (rallies for people killed). They began to open fire randomly in order to cause a schism between citizens and security personnel," the ministry said.

CNN could not independently confirm the accounts.

Anti-government protests began in mid-March, with unrest first centering in the Daraa region and later spreading to other parts of the country.

Scores of people have died, and President Bashar al-Assad's regime has been criticized for the lethal force used against anti-government protesters.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his concern over the reports of violence against protesters in a phone call Saturday with al-Assad.

According to a U.N. release, Ban told al-Assad that "the killing of peaceful demonstrators was unacceptable and should be investigated. He took note of the president's intention to investigate and encouraged early action in this regard."

U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement on Friday that "It is time for the Syrian government to stop repressing its citizens and to listen to the voices of the Syrian people calling for meaningful political and economic reforms."

Amnesty International said unarmed people calling "for greater freedoms were reportedly attacked by security forces firing live ammunition."

"The alarming reports coming from Syria today show that the authorities have not altered their violent methods for dealing with dissent," said Philip Luther, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Amnesty International.

Amnesty said on Friday that at least 171 people are believed to have been killed during the past three weeks of protest.

Abuses in Syria have long been alleged in the international arena, even before the demonstrations started last month.

The U.S. State Department's just-issued 2010 human rights report said Syrian security forces last year committed "unlawful killings, detained political and human rights activists, and tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees with impunity."

Opponents of the government allege massive human rights abuses and are calling for political and economic reform. They also want the release of all political prisoners and an end to emergency law.

One demand has been the lifting of the country's 48-year-old emergency law.

The emergency law allows the government to make preventive arrests and override constitutional and penal code statutes. In effect since 1963, it also bars detainees who have not been charged from filing court complaints and from having a lawyer present during interrogations.

Al-Assad has indicated he is amenable to reforms and has formed a committee to study the lifting of the emergency law. He has also announced Syrian nationality for thousands of people in the country's Kurdish region who had been stripped of their citizenship and classified as "foreigners."

CNN's Amir Ahmed and Salma Abdelaziz contributed to this report