Tanks, supported by troops, fired heavy machineguns in the towns of Talbiseh and Rastan and several villages near the city of Homs, residents told Reuters.
They are the latest population centers to come under army assault since a military crackdown to crush dissent against President Assad’s autocratic rule began at the end of last month in southern Syria, the cradle of the 10-week uprising in the 23-million-people country.
“Soldiers are now all over Talbiseh. They are breaking into houses and arresting people,” one resident in the town of 60,000 said in a telephone interview. The sound of bullets echoed in the background.
The official state news agency said four members of the security forces were killed in Talbiseh “while chasing armed terrorist groups... to detain them and present them to justice.”
Talbiseh is 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of Homs, Syria’s third largest city, where tanks shelled a main neighborhood earlier this month.
Troops have been occupying the main square in Homs to prevent scenes similar to when tens of thousands demonstrated in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen to press for reform.
Witness reports of violence in Syria, as well as official accounts, are difficult to verify independently because the government barred most international media from the country not long after the start of the unrest in March.
Another witness in Rastan, further to the north, said the town’s main clinic was full of wounded people and there was no way to get them to a hospital because of heavy tank fire.
“This is pure revenge,” said the witness, a lawyer who declined to be named for fear of reprisals.
Thousands of protesters in Rastan on Friday demanded the removal of Assad in one of the largest demonstrations in the region since the uprising against the government erupted in southern Syria on March 18.
Among those killed at Rastan were “a little girl called Hajar al-Khatib,” an activist told Agence-France Presse.
Another activist, contacted by telephone from Nicosia, said several people were wounded as security forces unleashed “intense gunfire” in Rastan and Talbisa, after tanks sealed off both towns.
“Dozens of tanks at dawn encircled the towns of Rastan and Talbisa,” the activist told AFP.
Rastan, a relatively prosperous town in an agricultural region, is on the main northern highway from Damascus to Syria’s second city Aleppo.
The lawyer said Internet, water, electricity, land lines and most mobile telephone links had been cut, a step commonly used by the military before they storm urban centers, according to Reuters.
Protests in Syria have continued despite the increasing force used to crush demonstrations that began with calls for political freedom and an end to corruption but are now urging the removal of Assad.
The president has responded to the growing protests, the biggest challenge to his rule, by intensifying a military crackdown that has killed hundreds.
The 45-year old leader has lifted emergency law and promised reforms but the opponents say there has been no change in Syria where the ruling Baath Party has banned all opposition and political freedoms since 1963.
Rights groups estimate at least 1,000 civilians have been killed by security forces, the army and gunmen loyal to Assad in the past 10 weeks. They said 10,000 people have been arrested, with beatings and torture commonplace.
Authorities blame armed groups, Islamists and foreign agents for the violence and say at least 120 soldiers and police officers have been killed. Activists say secret police killed scores of soldiers for refusing to fire at civilians.
In the eastern town of Deir al-Zor, protesters staged a night-time rally on Sunday, a day after at least one man was hurt when security forces opened fired to disperse a demonstration that had went through the night, witnesses said.
“I was hearing the bullets and the protesters chanting ‘the people want the overthrow of the regime’ at the same time,” one witness, a resident of the city, said by telephone on Saturday.
Demonstrations have been held nightly in Deir al-Zor and other cities and towns to circumvent heavy security which has intensified in recent weeks after street demonstrations grew in numbers and tanks were deployed in and around urban centers.
Human rights campaigners said a night-time rally took place on Saturday in the town of Binish in the northwestern province of Idlib in protest against arrests on Friday, when the biggest demonstrations typically occur after weekly prayers.
The Syrian National Organization for Human Rights said security forces shot dead 12 demonstrators on Friday during protests in 91 locations across Syria.
“The authorities are still pursuing the calculated course of using excessive violence and live ammunition to confront mass demonstrations,” the organization said in a statement.
(Abeer Tayel, an editor at Al Arabiya, can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)