Thousands of people waving Syrian flags and shouting "We Want Freedom!" took to the streets Sunday in Syria, a day after President Bashar Assad promised to end nearly 50 years of emergency rule, with reports that at three people have been shot to death.
Eyewitness reports and human rights groups say it was not immediately clear who shot at the protesters in Homs, 160 kilometres north of Damascus.
One witness said gunmen wearing black clothes opened fire at hundreds of people in the Talbiseh district in Homs at a funeral for a protester who was killed Saturday. Other witnesses said they saw soldiers and security forces open fire, shooting even at homes and balconies. Dozens were wounded, they said.
A human rights activist in Damascus confirmed the three deaths, saying he'd been given the names of the dead by eyewitnesses.
Meanwhile, Syria's state-run news agency later said one policeman was killed and 11 other policemen and security personnel were wounded when an "armed criminal gang" opened fire on them in Talbiseh
Activists had called for protests to mark Independence Day and to bolster the month-long uprising against the country's authoritarian regime. More than 200 people have been killed as security forces tried to crush the protests using live ammunition, tear gas and batons over the past four weeks.
Demonstrations erupted Sunday in the southern agricultural city of Daraa, which has become the epicentre of the protest movement, and the nearby town of Suweida about 130 kilometres southeast of the capital, Damascus.
Witnesses reached by telephone said tens of thousands of people were marching in Daraa, shouting "Whoever kills his own people is a traitor!" Others shouted "The people want to topple the regime," which was the rallying cry during protests in Egypt and Tunisia that ousted the countries' longtime leaders.
Another demonstration in Suweida drew about 300 people, according to witnesses. They said police beat up demonstrators with batons, injuring several of them.
The witness accounts could not be independently confirmed because Syria has placed tight restrictions on media outlets and expelled foreign journalists.
The demonstrations come despite promises by Assad to end the widely despised state of emergency rule by next week at the latest, and implement other reforms following more than a month of unprecedented demonstrations.
But he coupled his concession with a stern warning that further unrest will be considered sabotage. Assad says armed gangs and a "foreign conspiracy" are behind the unrest, not true reform-seekers.
On Sunday, Syria's state-run news agency said security forces seized a large quantity of weapons hidden in a truck coming from Iraq. SANA reported that the weapons were confiscated at the Tanaf crossing on the Syrian-Iraqi border, adding the shipment included machine-guns, automatic rifles, night vision goggles and grenade launchers. Syria said a similar shipment was confiscated on March 11.
Syria's leading pro-democracy group, the Damascus Declaration, urged Syrians to stage peaceful protests in all Syrian cities and abroad Sunday to "bolster Syria's popular uprising and ensure its continuity."
"The regime alone stands fully responsible for the blood of martyrs and all that will happen next in the country," the group said in a statement posted on its website.
Other activists also called for protests through social network sites.