Hundreds of Syrians chanted "freedom" as they gathered early today to receive home wounded protesters in Douma, the Damascus suburb taking the fight closest to President Bashar al-Assad's seat of power.
Some 50 wounded arrived in secret police cars around midnight in Municipality Square, where at least five were killed on Friday when rights activists said security forces fired at protesters demanding political freedoms and an end to graft.
Thousands took to the streets in major cities after Friday prayers, defying the security forces who fired teargas and live ammunition and used batons to try to disperse protesters who have dismissed reform gestures by Assad.
Secret police agents gave the names of 25 people in hospital with serious injuries, a witness in Douma said, adding that the authorities had promised to deliver the bodies to families of the dead before noon prayers.
"Society figures made it clear to the authorities that Douma wants its dead. We are expecting 15," one resident said.
The authorities, facing mass protests that erupted in the southern city of Deraa 16 days ago, have not been readily handing over bodies, but they might make exception in Douma, a link between Damascus and the countryside where demonstrators have shown a high degree of organisation, activists said.
"Douma is boiling. Syria as a nation may no longer keep sitting idly and let a historic chance for freedom pass by," one of the activists said of the area some 15 km north of the city.
"Men are realising that they are hiding at home while their wives are going out in the streets and getting arrested."
Another witness who toured the suburb yesterday said shops in at least one main commercial street were closed in solidarity with the protesters, who gathered after Friday prayers despite the heavy security presence.
The killings in Douma brought to at least 60 the number of deaths in protests against Baath Party rule.
Activists say Douma has become a meeting point for people from villages near Damascus who have descended on the city.
In Deraa, where protests started before they spread to Damascus, the coast and areas in between, security forces dispersed a sit in on Saturday at Serail Square and arrested at least 20 people, witnesses said.
"Our demands are same, same: freedom, freedom," the protesters, who numbered 200 to 300, chanted.
More than 2000 ethnic Kurds took to the streets of the northeastern city of Qamishli on Friday, despite a promise by Assad to look into granting citizenship to Kurds in Syria without Syrian passports, Kurdish sources said.
"Our demands are freedom, not just citizenship," chanted the protesters, who were not confronted by security forces.
Syria's second city Aleppo has been protest free, despite being inhabited mostly by Sunni Muslims who generally dislike the fact that the minority Alawite ruling elite have been amassing wealth and power widely seen as unchecked.
The turmoil could have wider repercussions since Syria, bordered by Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, is in the thick of the Middle East conflict, maintaining an anti-Israel alliance with Iran and supporting militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, despite seeking a peace deal with Israel an and end of US sanctions imposed on Syria in 2004.
Hamas sent its support to Syria's ruling hierarchy and said the unprecedented protests against Assad's rule must not compromise Syria "rejectionist" stand against Israel.
In the first public reaction to the protests, the Iranian- and Syrian- backed Islamist group toed the official Syrian line, saying the stability of Syria was priority.
"We hope the current situation will be overcome in the way that achieves the aspirations and the wishes of the Syrian people and maintains the stability of Syria and its internal integration and reinforces its role in the side of confrontation and rejection," a Hamas statement said on Saturday.
There had been doubts whether Hamas, which has built a reputation as a liberation movement among its Palestinian constituents, would publicly back Syria in what has been seen as a campaign of repression against Syria's democrats.
The United States, which has designated Syria as a "state sponsor of terrorism" since 1979, and the United Nations, condemned the latest escalation in violence.
Syria said "armed groups" were responsible for the violence in Douma, Homs and Deraa, where unrest came to a head after police detained more than a dozen schoolchildren for scrawling graffiti inspired by popular uprisings in the Arab world.
Speaking on Wednesday for the first time since the unrest began, Assad touted Syria as a champion of Arab rights.
Commenting on the protests, Assad played down the possibility of any fundamental transformation to Syria's autocratic political system, which he has kept intact since succeeding his late father, President Hafez al-Assad, in 2000.
Media operate in Syria under severe restrictions. Syria expelled Reuters' Damascus correspondent last week. One foreign journalist was released by authorities on Friday, three days after he had been detained, while a Syrian Reuters photographer remains missing since Monday.
Two other foreign Reuters journalists were also by expelled.