AMMAN Syrian forces shot dead at least six people protesting against President Bashar al-Assad on Friday, activists said, and the United Nations called for international protection for civilians from a crackdown it said could lead to civil war.
Friday's shootings, near Aleppo and in suburbs of Damascus, occurred as protesters took to the streets after weekly Muslim prayers, as they have done many times since Syria's uprising began in March, inspired by popular revolts that have ousted three Arab leaders this year.
In the eastern city of Qamishli, near the Turkish border, 20,000 people marched to honour Kurdish activist Mishaal al-Tammo, who was killed a week ago.
The United Nations said the death toll from the unrest had reached 3,000, including at least 187 children. Its human rights chief demanded that the world act to stop the carnage.
"The onus is on all members of the international community to take protective action in a collective manner, before the continual ruthless repression and killings drive the country into a full-blown civil war," U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said in a statement.
"As more members of the military refuse to attack civilians and change sides, the crisis is already showing worrying signs of descending into an armed struggle," she added.
At least 100 people had been killed in the last 10 days alone, she said.
Clashes between soldiers and suspected army deserters in the northern province of Idlib and the southern province of Deraa killed at least 35 people on Thursday, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Ten civilians were killed in crossfire in the northern town of Binish, the group said, but most of the other fatalities were soldiers, reflecting the growth of armed opposition to Assad's rule and rising casualties among his security forces.
Syria blames the violence on foreign-backed armed groups who it says have killed 1,100 soldiers and police. Assad was quoted by state media this week as saying Syria had "passed the most difficult stage" of the uprising.
Authorities have barred most foreign media from Syria, making it hard to verify accounts by the government or its foes.
Despite his confident comments, Assad faces growing regional pressure. Neighbouring Turkey, a former close ally, says it will impose sanctions on Damascus. Gulf Arab states have called for an Arab League meeting to discuss the "dire" situation in Syria.
The United States and Europe have embargoed Syrian oil exports and penalised several businesses, including the largest state bank, Commercial Bank of Syria, a move which economists say is likely to restrict Syria's trade finance.
They also sought a United Nations resolution that could pave the way for U.N. sanctions, but China and Russia blocked it.
Pillay stopped short of urging the U.N. Security Council to authorise the use of military force to protect Syrian civilians.
Asked what kind of action should be taken, her spokesman Rupert Colville said it was for countries to decide, but added: "What has been done so far is not producing results, and people continue to be killed virtually every single day."
Several thousand people marched on Friday in the town of Hirak in the southern Hauran plain, the first region where Assad used tanks and troops to try to crush the uprising early on.
"There is renewed optimism that the regime's days are numbered. We are seeing more army defections, economic sanctions biting, the West keeping up pressure and more movement from Arab countries," said Mohammad al-Arabi, an activist in Hirak, who cited last week's defection of a senior intelligence officer.
In Homs, video footage showed thousands rally in the Khalidiya district, shouting "Syria is destined for freedom."
Sectarian tension between majority Sunnis and minority Alawites has surfaced in the city, and armed resistance to Assad's rule has spread in the countryside nearby.
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Alistair Lyon)