AMMAN - Syrian forces killed 15 people when they fired on thousands of protesters trying to enter the southern city of Deraa, the heart of a six week uprising against President Bashar Assad, a medical source said on Friday.

The bloodshed occurred as demonstrations again erupted across the country, defying heavy military deployments, mass arrests and a ruthless crackdown on the biggest popular challenge to 48 years of authoritarian Baath Party rule.

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The medical source in Tafas, 12 km (8 miles) north-west of Deraa, said the local hospital received 15 bullet-riddled bodies, and 38 wounded villagers after the clash near Deraa.

Assad's violent repression has brought growing condemnation from Western countries which for several years had sought to engage Damascus and loosen its close alliance with Iran and move towards a peace deal with Israel.

Sources in Washington said on Friday the United States would tighten sanctions against Syria, targeting five individuals and entities for human rights violations. The UN Human Rights Council also adopted a resolution criticizing Syria.

A Syrian rights group said this week at least 500 civilians had been killed since the unrest broke out in Deraa on March 18. Authorities dispute the death toll, saying 78 security forces and 70 civilians died in violence they blame on armed groups.

State news agency SANA said on Friday an "armed terrorist group" killed four soldiers and kidnapped two in Deraa, where Assad sent tanks and troops to crush resistance on Monday.

But a witness in Deraa said Syrian forces fired live rounds at thousands of villagers who descended on the besieged city.

"They shot at people at the western gate of Deraa in the Yadoda area, almost three km (two miles) from the centre of the city," he said.

The latest violence broke out after Friday prayers as thousands of people hit the streets across the country demanding Assad's removal and pledging support for the residents of Deraa.

"The people want the overthrow of the regime!" demonstrators chanted in many protests, witnesses said.

More demonstrations flared in the central cities of Homs and Hama, Banias on the Mediterranean coast, Qamishly in eastern Syria and Harasta, a Damascus suburb.

The old Midan district of Damascus saw the biggest protest in the capital so far, with 10,000 people marching until they were dispersed by security forces firing tear gas, rights campaigners said.

Wissam Tarif, director of the Insan human rights group, said two people were killed in protests in Latakia. The killings could not be immediately confirmed. Foreign journalists have mostly been expelled from Syria.

A rights campaigner in Deraa said on Friday makeshift morgues in the city contained the bodies of 83 people he said had been killed since the army stormed the city, close to Syria's southern border with Jordan, on Monday.



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