At least 30 civilians and 26 soldiers were killed in Syria ahead of Friday prayers, activists said, as a seven-month crackdown on pro-democracy protests becomes more violent and attacks on security forces increase.
Friday prayers provide a rare venue for Syrians to gather in defiance of efforts to put down protests, and activists reported a heavier security presence around mosques in big towns last week, preventing prayers in some from being held.
November is already shaping up to be one of the bloodiest months yet in Syria's 8-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's rule.
The Local Coordination Committees activist network says 250 Syrians have been killed since the start of the month. Most of the dead are civilians, and about 20 are soldiers. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also documented more than 200 civilian deaths. But the observatory has a far higher toll for soldiers, saying more than 100 were killed.
The differing death tolls could not be immediately reconciled. But the startling figures point to the spike in violence recently.
Thousands marched on Thursday at funerals for 24 civilians killed by pro-Assad forces the day before, activists said, including eight in Damascus in one of the bloodiest attacks on demonstrations in the capital.
Arab states remain widely divided over how to deal with Syria's crackdown on protesters after a peace plan brokered by its neighbors on Nov. 2 failed to stem violence, and there is little likelihood a meeting on Saturday will bridge the gap.
Arab League to act?
Several countries oppose bringing serious pressure to bear on Assad and it looks unlikely that foreign ministers will freeze Syria's membership of the Arab League at the Cairo meeting, officials due to attend say.
If Arab states isolated Syria, that would help Assad's sternest critics in the West gain a broader consensus for tougher sanctions and, perhaps, some form of intervention.
Saudi Arabia leads a group of Gulf states including Qatar, Oman and Bahrain that are ready to increase the pressure on Assad, an ally of their rival Iran.
Diplomats say they are opposed by countries such as Yemen, which is in the grip if its own uprising; Lebanon, where Syria's influence looms large; and Algeria, seen as more sympathetic to Assad and nervous about the message any intervention in Syria would send to its own frustrated population.
The continued bloodshed on Syria's streets since the Arab Peace Plan was brokered last week seems to have done little to shift the mood in favor of tougher action.
In Syria, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said the authorities will adhere in a week to the plan, under which Syria pledged to pull the military out of restive cities, set political prisoners free and start talks with the opposition, which wants to remove Assad and introduce democratic freedoms.
"Syria, which announced its commitment to the Arab plan, affirms that it will implement most of its clauses in a week, unlike what is being spread by unfair satellite channels," Moualem said in a letter to the Arab League secretary general, excerpts of which was published on official media.
Islamists, terrorists blamed
Human Rights Watch said in a report released Friday that government forces had killed at least 104 people and carried out crimes against humanity in the central city of Homs since the plan was agreed.
The report, called "We Live as in War," follows another HRW report, called "We've Never Seen Such Horror," which was released in June. That report detailed abuses by Syrian security forces in Daraa area, birthplace of protest movement.
"Homs is a microcosm of the Syrian government's brutality," Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, according to The Associated Press. "The Arab League needs to tell President (Bashar) Assad that violating their agreement has consequences, and that it now supports Security Council action to end the carnage."
HRW acknowledged that some protesters and army defectors took up arms to protect themselves — a development that some fear plays directly into the regime's hands by giving it an excuse to use extreme violence against a mostly peaceful movement.
"Violence by protesters or defectors deserves further investigation," the report said. "However, these incidents by no means justify the disproportionate and systematic use of lethal force against demonstrators, which clearly exceeded any justifiable response to any threat presented by overwhelmingly unarmed crowds."
The United Nations says 3,500 people have been killed in Assad's crackdown. Authorities say more than 1,100 soldiers and police have been killed in the unrest, which they blame on "terrorists" and Islamist militants.
Syria has barred most foreign media, making it difficult to verify accounts from activists and officials.
Among the 56 killed on Thursday were 16 protesters shot dead by soldiers in Homs, 90 miles north of Damascus, where troops have tried to crush protests as well as an armed insurgency, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
"We are going to heaven, martyrs in the millions," sang a crowd at a rally in the town of Helfaya near Hama, according to a YouTube video. The song has become a popular chant in other Arab countries during Arab Spring revolts.
Fourteen others were killed in house-to-house raids and in protests in Damascus suburbs, the southern province of Daraa and the northwestern province of Idlib near Turkey.
Twenty six soldiers were killed in ambushes, activists said, 25 near Maarat al-Numaan, a town about 40 miles south of Aleppo, and in the nearby city of Khan Sheikhoun, said the British-based Observatory, headed by dissident Rami Abdelrahman.
Another soldier was killed in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor.
Deserters fighting loyalists
Both towns are in Idlib, where an increasing number of army deserters and insurgents are taking refuge, helped by the region's rugged terrain and proximity to Turkey, activists say.
An activist in the eastern Damascus suburb of Harasta, who gave his name as Assem, said three deserters were killed after they abandoned military units which fired live ammunition at a demonstration of 1,500-2,000 people in the al-Zar neighborhood.
"Security police could not put down the demonstration. The eight soldiers defected when Republican Guards and the Fourth Armored Division were sent in," he said.
A YouTube video distributed by other activists purportedly showed several soldiers in Harasta wearing helmets and ammunition vests running for cover behind a vegetable stall amid the crackle of automatic gunfire.
In Homs, activists said the number of tanks in the city had increased and new roadblocks were set up, especially around Bayada and Bab Sbaa, districts that have seen regular protests against Assad.
Authorities said on Wednesday that life had returned to normal in the city after it was cleansed of "terrorists" who have been attacking civilians and troops.
"Arrests are non-stop. If the army spots any group of youths anywhere they arrest them," said Ahmad, an activist who only gave his first name.