The Associated Press

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- A mass protest calling for sweeping changes in Syria's authoritarian regime turned bloody Friday, with the government and protesters claiming heavy casualties as the country's three-week uprising entered a dangerous new phase.

Human rights activists and witnesses said Syrian security forces opened fire on tens of thousands of protesters in the volatile southern city of Daraa, killing 25 people and wounding hundreds. State-run TV said 19 policemen and members of the security forces were shot dead.

It was the first significant claim of casualties by the Syrian government, which has contended that armed gangs rather than true reform-seekers are behind the unrest -- and it could signal plans for a stepped-up retaliation.

Protest organizers have called on Syrians to take to the streets every Friday for the past three weeks, demanding change in one of the most rigid nations in the Middle East. Protests were held in several cities across the country Friday as the movement showed no sign of letting up, despite violent crackdowns.

Syria's National Organization for Human Rights said at least 32 people were killed nationwide on Friday. That lifts the death toll from three weeks of protests to more than 170 people.

The protests have shaken the regime of President Bashar Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years.

Witness accounts coming out of Syria could not be independently confirmed because the regime has restricted media access to the country.But witnesses, who spoke to the AP independently of each other, said Daraa residents turned mosques into makeshift hospitals to help tend to the wounded.

Latest videos