At least three people were killed and scores wounded in Syria on Sunday as security forces kept up their assault on the coastal town of Baniyas, where anti-government protests have gained momentum in recent days, witnesses said.
"We just want our rights, but unfortunately we live under the thumb of a mafia, and that mafia belongs to Bashar Assad," said Hamad Orabi, a Baniyas resident, referring to the Syrian president. Orabi blamed armed groups with government ties for the latest eruption of violence, which continued well into Sunday afternoon.
"There are armed groups, some of them in civilian clothes, but they all belong to the government," Orabi said. He said the fighting began early Sunday after a peaceful march Saturday night at which protesters chanted, "The people want to topple the regime" -- replacing earlier slogans calling for reform and freedom.
Meanwhile, Syrian state media reported that as many as nine people had died in an ambush on police officers near the city and that Assad had met with Bulgaria's foreign minister, Nikolay Mladenov, and assured him that Syria was on the road to "comprehensive reform."
Assad has sought to placate protesters with limited concessions in recent weeks, granting citizenship to about 300,000 stateless Kurds and establishing a committee to study the repeal of the nation's longstanding emergency law, under which security forces arrest and imprison activists. But the mounting death toll appears to be galvanizing a movement that has struggled to take root in many cities, including the capital, Damascus.
Human rights groups say more than 300 people have been killed nationwide since the unrest began in the southern city of Dara almost a month ago. Thirty-seven died Friday, the single deadliest day so far.
Syrian officials have blamed "armed groups" sponsored by foreign interests for the violence, reporting a high number of casualties among police and security forces.
The Interior Ministry issued a statement Friday warning that "there is no more room for leniency or tolerance in enforcing law, preserving security of country and citizens and protecting general order."
Meanwhile, in Yemen on Sunday, new clashes broke out between protesters and government forces.
The Gulf Cooperation Council, meeting in Saudi Arabia, offered a plan for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to transfer power to his vice president in exchange for immunity from prosecution, according to wire reports.
Lutz is a special correspondent.