Troops killed at least six protesters in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour in Syria on Saturday, according to the Local Coordination Committees, which helps organize and document the protests calling for an end to the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Syria's state-run news agency, SANA, said "armed criminal groups" attacked several police stations in the town, killing two policeman.
The number of dead keeps climbing. More than 70 protesters were killed across Syria on Friday, in what appeared to be among the largest demonstrations yet in the country. At least 65 of those were in Hama, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
On Saturday, more than 70 tanks rolled to the entrance to Hama, causing alarm among residents. The city rose up against Assad's father in 1982, only to be crushed by a three-week bombing campaign that killed thousands, memories of those days are still raw.
"Dozens of tanks are reaching the southern outskirts of the city," said an activist who lives in a nearby town. "They will probably lay a siege then storm Hama."
Government eases internet stranglehold
Meanwhile, the government lifted its stranglehold on the internet, which has been key to motivating people to join the 11-week uprising, but the crackdown that has left over 1,200 dead since March did not relent.
The Local Coordination Committees says at least 1,270 people have been killed and more than 10,000 arrested since the uprising began in March.
The move toward Hama could mean that the army is preparing for a major operation there, similar to offensives in other areas in the past weeks such as the southern city of Daraa, the coastal city of Banias and the central town of Rastan where operations are still under way.
Tens of thousands mourn dead
After noon prayers, before the arrival of the tanks, tens of thousands of people streamed out of mosques carrying coffins of the dead and headed toward the two main cemeteries, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the rights group's director
As they marched in the streets carrying the coffins, the protesters chanted "our souls, our blood we sacrifice to you martyr."
The witnesses said hundreds of security agents guarded the local office of the ruling Baath party and the nearby police headquarters. But there was no overt friction between protesters and the troops.
Residents said most shops in Hama were closed since the morning to protest the shootings.
The Syrian government has severely restricted the media and expelled foreign reporters, making it nearly impossible to independently verify what is happening there.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said authorities released a leading opposition figure Saturday. Ali Abdullah of the Damascus Declaration Group had been jailed since 2007 and was among hundreds of political prisoners freed this week after Assad issued a general amnesty.
Assad also created a committee that he said would pave the way for a national dialogue, hoping the concessions would satisfy the revolt, which is posing the most serious challenge to the Assad family's 40-year rule.