Syrian police launched a relentless assault Wednesday on a neighborhood sheltering anti-government protesters, fatally shooting at least 15 in an operation that lasted nearly 24 hours, witnesses said.
At least six were killed in an early morning attack on the al-Omari mosque in the southern agricultural city of Daraa, where protesters have taken to the streets in calls for reforms and political freedoms, witnesses said. An activist in contact with people in Daraa said police shot another three people protesting in the Roman-era city center of Daraa after dusk. Six more bodies were found later in the day, the activist said.
Among the newest deaths was that of a 12-year-old girl whose body lay near the mosque.
Another man was fatally shot by police after a funeral for one of the slain, the activist said.
And four more bodies were seen laying near the offices of a security agency but no one dared to come and pick them up, the activist said.
Inspired by the wave of pro-democracy protests around the region, the uprising in Daraa and at least four nearby villages has become the biggest domestic challenge since the 1970s to the Syrian government, one of the most repressive in the Middle East. Security forces have responded with water cannon, tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. The total death toll now stands at 22.
As the casualties mounted, people from the nearby villages of Inkhil, Jasim, Khirbet Ghazaleh and al-Harrah tried to march on Daraa Wednesday night but security forces opened fire as they approached, the activist said. It was not immediately clear if there were more deaths or injuries.
Democracy activists used social-networking sites to call for massive demonstrations across the country on Friday, a day they dubbed "Dignity Friday."
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Washington was alarmed by the violence and "deeply concerned by the Syrian government's use of violence, intimidation and arbitrary arrests to hinder the ability of its people to freely exercise their universal rights."
Heavy shooting rattled the city until at least the early afternoon, when an Associated Press reporter in the city heard bursts of semi-automatic gunfire echoing in its old center.
The London-based Syrian Human Rights Committee reported on its website, quoting sources in Daraa, that Syrian authorities shot and killed soldier Khaled al-Masri for refusing orders to take part in storming al-Omari mosque. The report could not be independently confirmed.
State TV said that an "armed gang" attacked an ambulance in Daraa and security forces killed four attackers and wounded others and was chasing others who fled. It denied that security forces had stormed the mosque, but also showed footage of guns, AK47s, hand grenades, ammunition and money that it said had been seized from inside.
A video posted on Facebook by activists showed what it said was an empty street near al-Omari Mosque, with the rattle of shooting in the background as a voice shouts: "My brother, does anyone kill his people? You are our brothers." Its authenticity could not be independently verified.
Mobile phone connections to Daraa were cut and checkpoints throughout the city were manned by soldiers in camouflage uniforms and plainclothes security agents with rifles. Anti-terrorism police wearing dark blue uniforms were also out on the streets.
An ambulance was parked on the side of a road leading to the old city, its windshield smashed.
The witness said hundreds of anti-terrorism police had surrounded al-Omari mosque.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the violence against peaceful demonstrators in Daraa and called for "a transparent investigation into the killings" and for those responsible to be held accountable, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
"He reminds the Syrian government of its obligation to protect civilians, and of its responsibility to address the legitimate aspirations of its people through a purposeful dialogue and reforms," Nesirky said.
Daraa is a province of some 300,000 people near the Jordanian border that has suffered greatly from years of drought. Daraa, like most of Syria, is predominantly Sunni Muslim.
It has been generally supportive of President Bashar Assad's Baath party, said Murhaf Jouejati, a Syria expert at George Washington University.
He said Daraa had a "conservative, devoutly Muslim" population that has traditionally been a main pillar of support for the ruling party. The fact that they have been protesting in the streets "means that the Baath party is in trouble."
The grip of Syria's security forces is weaker on the border away from the capital, Damascus, and Daraa hasn't benefited from the country's recent years of economic growth. Meanwhile, its main city has absorbed many Syrians from nearby areas who can no longer farm their lands because of increasing desertification.
"You have a combination of feelings of being excluded and neglected, and growing internal tensions from environmental refugees," said Steven Heydemann, a Middle East expert at the United States Institute for Peace.
The unrest there started with the arrest last week of a group of students who sprayed anti-government graffiti on walls in the main city of Daraa, some 80 miles south of the capital Damascus.
Demonstrations calling for the students' release swelled into calls for political freedoms and security forces killed at least seven people in attempts to quash them, according to witnesses and activists.
The Syrian government fired the governor of the southern province of Daraa but failed to quell popular anger and on Tuesday the protests reached the village of Nawa, where hundreds of people marched demanding reforms, activist said.
So far, none of the slogans used by protesters have called for the ouster of President Bashar Assad, who became the head of Syria's minority Alawite ruling elite in 2000 after the death of his father and predecessor, Hafez.
On Wednesday, Abdul-Karim al-Rihawi, head of the Arab League for Human Rights, said several prominent activists have been arrested in the past two days, including well known writer Loay Hussein. Hussein had issued a statement calling for freedom of peaceful protests and expressed solidarity with the Daraa protesters.
Al-Rihawi said security agents picked up Hussein from his home in Damascus on Tuesday and confiscated his computer.
He said another activist, Issa al-Masalmi, was arrested in Daraa.
Also Wednesday, authorities said that six women who were detained last week after protesting in front of the Syrian Interior Ministry in central Damascus would be released Wednesday. The women were among 32 people, most of them relatives of political detainees in Syria, who were detained last Wednesday and charged by a prosecutor with hurting the state's image.
Al-Rihawi said the women would still have to stand trial despite their release.
AP Writer Zeina Karam contributed from Beirut, Lebanon.