The U.S. State Department acknowledged Monday it has been funding opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad, following the release of secret diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks that document the funding.

The files show that up to $6.3 million US was funnelled to the Movement for Justice and Development, a London-based dissident organization that operates the Barada TV satellite channel, which broadcasts anti-government news into Syria. Another $6 million went to support a variety of initiatives, including training for journalists and activists, between 2006 and 2010.

Asked point-blank by reporters whether the United States is funding Syrian opposition groups, State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a news conference Monday, "We are — we're working with a variety of civil society actors in Syria with the goal here of strengthening freedom of expression."

Then pressed to specify whether the U.S. provides satellite bandwidth for Barada TV's broadcasts, Toner said: "I'd have to get details of what exactly technical assistance we're providing them."

Toner insisted the financing is not aimed at overthrowing Assad's rule. "We are not working to undermine that government."

However, an April 2009 diplomatic cable from the U.S. mission in Damascus recognizes the risky optics of the funding.

"Some programs may be perceived, were they made public, as an attempt to undermine the Assad regime.… The Syrian Arab Republic government would undoubtedly view any U.S. funds going to illegal political groups as tantamount to supporting regime change."

Whistleblower website WikiLeaks provided the cables to the Washington Post newspaper, which first reported on them. The files are part of a haul of 251,000 secret U.S. diplomatic documents the website says it has obtained. It began disclosing them in November through partner media outlets and so far has released nearly 7,000.

5,000 stage sit-in

On Monday, more than 5,000 anti-government protesters in Syria took over the main square of the country's third-largest city, vowing to occupy the site until Assad is ousted and defying authorities who warn they will not be forced into reforms.

However, the government blamed the weeks of anti-government unrest in the country on ultraconservative Muslims seeking to establish a fundamentalist state and terrorize the people, in the latest official effort to portray the reform movement as populated by extremists.

In the past month, Syrian security forces in uniforms and plainclothes have launched a deadly crackdown on demonstrations, killing at least 200 people, according to human rights groups. Many Syrians also say pro-government thugs — known as Shabiha — have terrorized neighbourhoods with tactics such as opening fire into the air.

'Armed gangs' blamed for unrest

The government has in the past blamed "armed gangs" seeking to stir up unrest for many of the killings, such as the ones who fatally shot seven people, including three army officers, on Sunday in Homs.

On Monday, the Interior Ministry identified the gangs as "armed Salafi groups," referring to an ultraconservative form of Islam that has its roots in Saudi Arabia and can be found all over the region. The statement carried by the state news agency said they were seeking to establish "emirates" and were "abusing the freedoms and reforms launched in the comprehensive program with a timetable by President Bashar Assad."

Assad has been playing on fears of sectarian warfare as he works to quell any popular support for the uprising and has blamed the unrest on a foreign plot to sow sectarian strife — echoing pronouncements from almost every other besieged leader in the region.

The Egypt-style standoff in the central city of Homs followed funeral processions by more than 10,000 mourners for some of those killed in clashes Sunday that a rights group said left at least 12 people dead. It also brought a high-stakes challenge to security forces over whether to risk more bloodshed — and international backlash — by trying to clear the square.

With files from The Associated Press