International rights groups on Thursday reported mass arrests in Syria, including of a young blogger, after 15 people were reportedly shot dead in the southern protest city of Daraa.
While the number of victims remains unconfirmed, activists have said Wednesday's killings brought the death toll to 21 in a week of protests in Daraa, a mainly Sunni tribal city near the Jordanian border that has witnessed increasingly heated protests against the ruling regime.
"Our city is usually bustling at this time, but the streets are completely empty today," Amal, a Daraa resident who is employed at a bank, told AFP by telephone.
"All our schools are closed, and I went to work this morning but went right back home," she said. "There was no one there but the security guard."
Rights groups meanwhile reported more arrests in the Middle Eastern country infamous for its iron grip on security.
Amnesty International has compiled a list of 93 people, some for their online activities, arrested this month in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Banias, Daraa, Hama, Homs, and others.
"The real number of those arrested is likely to be considerably higher," read an Amnesty press release.
They are believed to be aged between 14 and 45 and include students, intellectuals, journalists and activists.
London-based rights group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Thursday reported the arrest of 27-year-old blogger Ahmad Hadifa at his office in Damascus over his support for the Daraa protests via Facebook.
Hadifa had previously been detained for days last month over his blogging activities.
Syria, which is still under a 1963 emergency law banning demonstrations, is the latest state in the Middle East to witness an uprising against a long-running autocratic regime.
Budding protests have surfaced in the capital Damascus, but the hub of the movement has been Daraa, a city home to an estimated 250,000 people.
The protesters, who have not yet clearly been identified, for one week have been holed up in the Omari mosque, focal point of one week of protests demanding the end of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, whose Baath party has ruled Syria for 40 years.
Authorities in Daraa accuse them of being Salafists, an austere branch of Sunni Islam.
State television on Wednesday aired footage of what it said was a stockpile of weapons inside the mosque.
Daraa remained tense Thursday, with shops closed as anti-terrorism security forces patrolled the streets.
Entrances to the area were sealed off, and vehicles granted access had to pass through two separate intelligence checkpoints manned by armed plain-clothes forces.
Human rights activists said at least 15 people were killed in shootings in Daraa Wednesday, including an 11-year-old girl and a doctor who had taken cover in an ambulance.
Activists and residents have accused security forces of opening fire on protesters outside the Omari mosque early in the day, after hundreds of people gathered overnight to prevent police from storming it.
A funeral for two of those killed on Wednesday also came under fire, activists said, and AFP reporters witnessed sporadic shooting in Daraa Wednesday.