More than 50 Syrians were killed as tens of thousands of protesters rallied for a "day of rage" after Friday prayers, defying warnings of a harsh crackdown, rights activists and officials said.
Protests against President Bashar al-Assad's regime were held in most major towns, witnesses said, in pro-democracy demonstrations after the Muslim weekly prayers as on past Fridays.
At least 32 civilians were killed in the protest epicenter of Daraa, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding it had a list of names of those confirmed killed.
Military officials said four soldiers were also killed and two captured by "armed terrorists" in Daraa, though a rights activist in the southern town said the men had been killed defending protesters.
And in Homs, at least 15 civilians were killed in the industrial city, the Observatory said, updating an earlier toll from an activist.
The interior ministry said three members of the security forces were also killed in Homs.
"Three police officers ... were shot dead today after being targeted by extremist terrorist groups when they performed their duties," the official SANA news agency quoted a ministry source as saying.
The Observatory said one person was also killed in the Mediterranean port city of Latakia.
Ahead of Friday's bloodshed, dissidents said security forces using live rounds and tear gas already killed more than 450 people since the pro-democracy protests erupted in mid-March.
The call for mass demonstrations was issued on a Facebook page, The Syrian Revolution 2011, a motor of the protests in which demonstrators inspired by uprisings across the Arab world are seeking greater freedoms.
Assad's embattled regime reiterated its running ban on demonstrations, despite having lifted a decades-old law barring them earlier this month, as the Muslim Brotherhood accused it of genocide.
Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud told Agence France Presse the crackdown would continue, saying the "authorities are determined to restore security, stability and peace to the citizens.
The interior ministry appealed to Syrians not to join the protests and warned that unauthorized rallies would not be tolerated.
It called on "brother citizens to contribute in an effective way to stability and security ... by not staging demonstrations or sit-ins for any reason without official permission," it said, quoted by SANA.
"The laws in force in Syria will be applied to preserve the security of citizens and the country's stability," it added.
Similar protests after Muslim weekly prayers on April 22 ended in chaos, with more than 100 people killed when security forces fired on demonstrators with tear gas and live rounds. Hundreds of others were detained.
In Banias, about 10,000 people turned out on Friday, shouting "liberty, solidarity with Daraa" and "down with the regime."
In Deir Ez-Zor, northeast of the capital, two demonstrators were beaten with batons and electrical cables after 1,000 people emerged from a mosque and were dispersed by security forces, rights activist Nawwaf al-Bashir said.
Some 15,000 people turned out in the majority Kurdish city of Qamishli and neighboring towns, shouting "national unity" and "with our soul and with our blood we will sacrifice ourselves for Daraa," activists said.
And besides Homs, where thousands of people could be seen shouting "down with the regime" on videos fed to the Internet, demonstrations were also staged in Saqba and Midan, near the capital.
In Daraa itself, security forces opened fire as "thousands of people" from neighboring towns tried to "bring aid and food" to the city, besieged by the army since Monday, an activist at the scene said.
Also in Daraa, "an armed terrorist group attacked a military post at dawn," SANA quoted a military official as saying. "Four soldiers were killed and two were captured."
Water and power have been cut in Daraa as the situation worsened after between 3,000 and 5,000 troops backed by tanks stormed the town on Monday.
Syria has been rocked since March 15 by increasingly strident anti-regime demonstrations.
Meanwhile, the U.N. Human Rights Council endorsed a U.S. call for an investigative mission on the bloodshed by voting for a resolution that also condemned the violent government crackdown.
Although the Western resolution was watered down, it managed to rally crucial African and Latin American support to overcome Russia and China's powerful opposition to international condemnation of Syria.
Several Arab nations including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan and Qatar also abstained or were unusually absent when the vote was called, despite Syria's warnings that the resolution "sent the wrong message" to violent protestors.
The resolution "unequivocally condemns the use of lethal violence against peaceful protestors by the Syrian authorities ... and urges the Syrian government to immediately put an end to all human rights violations".
It also "requests the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to urgently dispatch a mission to the Syrian Arab Republic to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law," according to the text released by the United Nations.
Twenty-six countries voted for the resolution, including some African and Latin American nations that had voiced qualms during the special session on Syria, while nine voted against.
Seven countries abstained, while five were absent.
U.S. ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe acknowledged that Syria needed time to carry out reform.
"But in the process of exercising their responsibility to reform their government they cannot be mowing down people in their own streets, bringing out tanks, opening live fire or sending in snipers against peaceful protesters," she told journalists.
Syria had offered two weeks ago to allow U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay to send a mission to the country but under certain conditions, according to U.N. officials.
U.N. Deputy High Commissioner Kyung-wha Kang said Friday that the offer was still under discussion with the Syrian government.
"Let me also underscore that Syria has a responsibility to protect its population from crimes against humanity," she told the council.
Russia and China clashed with the United States in the U.N. Security Council in New York earlier this week, blocking formal condemnation of the violence, and maintained that stance on Friday.
"We believe if we adopt this, this will only complicate the situation of human rights in Syria and will increase tension in the country," Chinese ambassador Xia Jingge cautioned before Friday's vote.
Syria underlined that it had set up a committee to investigate civilian deaths.
Syrian ambassador Faysal Khabbas Hamoui acknowledged that there had been "peaceful demonstrations calling for reform" and insisted that security forces were acting against "groups of saboteurs".
"Sixty officers and conscripts have been killed and 300 people have been injured very seriously," he told the council.
Although Brazil voted for the condemnation of Syria, Brazilian ambassador Maria Nazareth Farani Azevedo later criticized the West for not seeking similar action on clampdowns by allies in the Middle East.
Chamberlain Donahoe insisted that Syria had "crossed a threshold" that made it differ.
"We don’t have a cookie-cutter approach. The United States is deeply concerned about the human rights situation in Bahrain, in Yemen, throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and we remain seized of those situations," she added.
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