- Associated Press - Sunday, April 17, 2011

BEIRUT | Gunmen opened fire during a funeral for a slain protester Sunday, killing at least three people on a day when tens of thousands of people took to the streets nationwide as part of an uprising against the country’s authoritarian regime, witnesses said.

It was not immediately clear who was behind the shooting at the funeral near Homs, 100 miles from the capital, Damascus.

In the past four weeks, Syrian security forces in uniforms and plainclothes have begun a deadly crackdown on demonstrations, killing at least 200 people, according to human rights groups. The government has blamed armed gangs looking to create unrest for many of the killings.

One witness said gunmen wearing black clothes opened fire at hundreds of people in the Talbiseh district in central Syria at a funeral for a protester who was killed Saturday. Other witnesses said they saw soldiers and security forces open fire, shooting even at homes and balconies.

Dozens were wounded, they said.

The witnesses requested anonymity for fear of reprisals from the government.

Syria’s state-run news agency later said one policeman was killed and 11 other policemen and security personnel were wounded when an “armed criminal gang” opened fire on them in Talbiseh. It said the gang opened fire randomly, clearing main streets and terrorizing residents.

The killings were bound to increase pressure on President Bashar Assad, who has tried to quell the popular uprising with a mixture of brute force and concessions.

On Saturday, he promised to end nearly 50 years of emergency rule this week, a key demand of the protesters.

Despite Mr. Assad’s promises, the protest movement has grown and become much bolder. Many protesters say they will settle for nothing less than the downfall of the regime.

On Sunday, tens of thousands of people waving Syrian flags and shouting “We want freedom!” took to the streets across Syria, brushing off Mr. Assad’s attempts to calm things down.

“It’s too late for their promises,” said Bayan Bayati, a 22-year-old Arabic literature student who was among 20,000 people who turned out Sunday in the town of Banias.

Other large gatherings were reported in the southern city of Daraa, which has become an epicenter of the movement, and the suburbs of Damascus.

The witness accounts could not be independently confirmed because Syria has placed tight restrictions on media outlets and expelled foreign journalists.

Mr. Assad said Saturday the emergency laws will be lifted this week, a key demand of protesters. Syria’s widely despised emergency laws have been in place since the ruling Ba’ath Party came to power in 1963, giving the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge and extending state authority into virtually every aspect of life.

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