Syrian forces killed 13 people on Friday during widespread protests against President Bashar al-Assad, activists said, a day after Syria's big power ally Russia sharpened its criticism of Damascus in a draft United Nations resolution.
Most of the deaths were in the city of Homs, they said, a hotbed of resistance to a crackdown on nine months of protests which has killed 5,000 people according to the United Nations and provoked Western and Arab League sanctions on Damascus.
State media said there were no deaths or injuries on Friday, despite what they said were attacks by armed terrorist groups on security forces. Syria has barred most independent media, making it hard to verify accounts by activists and authorities.
About 200,000 people marched in separate districts of Homs, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, and footage broadcast by Al Jazeera television showed mock gallows where effigies were hanged, including two of Assad and his father, who seized power in Syria four decades ago.
If confirmed, it would be one the biggest turnouts by demonstrators for several weeks.
Russia presented a new, beefed-up draft resolution on the violence to the U.N. Security Council on Thursday, offering a chance for the 15-nation panel to overcome deadlock and deliver its first statement of purpose on Assad's crackdown.
The council has been split, with Western countries harshly critical of Syria pitted against Russia, China and non-aligned countries that have avoided blaming Assad for the violence.
France, which has led Western rebukes of Assad, welcomed what it said was Moscow's recognition of the deteriorating situation in Syria, but said Russia was wrong to equate Assad's crackdown with violence perpetrated by his opponents.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Friday the United States wanted to work with Russia on the draft resolution, but added:
We do have some concerns with the text of the draft. We wouldn't be prepared to accept it as written, particularly because it appears to create a sense of parity between these peaceful protesters and the action of the regime which has been extremely brutal and violent.
We also have urged the Russians to work with the Arab League and to ensure that the Arab League's demands are incorporated into any draft, she said.
Assad has denied that Syrian forces have been ordered to kill demonstrators, blaming armed groups for the bloodshed. He said 1,100 soldiers and police have been killed since the uprising erupted in March, inspired by other unrest in the Arab world that has toppled three autocratic leaders this year.
An armed insurgency has begun to eclipse civilian protests, raising fears Syria could descend into civil war. On Thursday army deserters killed 27 soldiers and security personnel in the southern province of Deraa, an activist group said.
State news agency SANA reported that security forces defused several explosives in Damascus and Hama provinces on Friday.
It is the most serious challenge to the 11-year rule of Assad, 46, whose family is from the minority Alawite sect and has ruled majority Sunni Muslim Syria since 1970.
The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions and called on Assad to step down. Neighbouring Turkey has taken similar steps and even the Arab League has declared sanctions against Syria, although it has several times extended a deadline for Syria to approve a formula for ending the crisis.
In the latest sign of the heavy economic price Syria is paying for its repression of dissent, Turkey said on Friday that Damascus would lose more than $100 million a year in transport revenue as Ankara bypasses the turbulent country by opening alternative export routes to the Middle East and Gulf.
ARAB LEAGUE IS KILLING US
Arab governments called off a foreign ministers' meeting due to discuss a response on Saturday to Assad's iron fist policy towards unrest, Egypt's state news agency MENA reported.
A source at Arab League headquarters in Cairo gave no reason for the cancellation. A lower-level meeting of its ministerial committee on Syria will go ahead in Qatar on Saturday, the source said. The committee includes the foreign ministers of Egypt, Sudan, Oman, Qatar and Algeria.
Friday's protests were held under the slogan of The Arab League is Killing us, reflecting demonstrators' frustration at what they see as the organisation's ineffective response.
At the U.N. Security Council in October, Russia and China vetoed a European draft resolution that threatened sanctions. Russia has circulated its own draft twice but it was criticised by Western nations for blaming the violence equally on the government and opposition.
The draft floated unexpectedly by Russia on Thursday expands and toughens Moscow's previous text, adding a new reference to disproportionate use of force by Syrian authorities.
Obtained by Reuters, the draft also urges the Syrian government to put an end to suppression of those exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.
Reports by Human Rights Watch and a U.N.-backed independent investigation have concluded that Syrian government forces were given shoot to kill orders when confronting demonstrators.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters that the latest draft resolution considerably strengthens all aspects of the previous text and that clearly the Syrian authorities are singled out in a number of instances.
He said Russia did not believe both sides in Syria were equally responsible for violence, but acknowledged the text called on all parties to halt violence and contained no threat of sanctions, which he said Moscow continued to oppose.
France said the draft has elements that are not acceptable in their current form.
For France, it is a positive development that Russia has decided to recognise that the serious deterioration of the situation in Syria merits a Security Council resolution, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero told a news briefing.
(Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Ece Toksabay and Missy Ryan in Ankara, Tom Pfeiffer in Cairo; Editing by Alistair Lyon)