Syrian forces killed at least 54 people on Friday as they sought to quell demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad before a peace mission by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, opposition activists said.
Tank rounds and mortar bombs crashed into opposition districts in the rebellious central city of Homs, killing 17 people, activists said, while 24 were killed in the northern province of Idlib and more deaths were reported elsewhere.
"Thirty tanks entered my neighbourhood at seven this morning and they are using their cannons to fire on houses," said Karam Abu Rabea, a resident in Homs's Karm al-Zeitoun neighbourhood.
One focus of demonstrations was the anniversary of Kurdish unrest in Syria in 2004 when about 30 people were killed.
Many thousands of Kurds demonstrated in northeastern cities, YouTube footage showed, some carrying banners that read "Save the Syrian people". Other clips showed hundreds of protesters in the Assali district of Damascus, burning posters of Assad's father Hafez al-Assad and chanting "God damn your soul, Hafez".
Syria's state news agency SANA reported big pro-Assad demonstrations in Damascus and Hassaka in the northeast.
Tight media restrictions imposed by authorities make it hard to assess conflicting accounts of events on the ground.
Street protests have swelled every Friday after Muslim prayers since the anti-Assad revolt erupted a year ago, despite violent repression by the military and loyalist militias.
Decisive victory has eluded both sides in an increasingly bloody struggle that appears to be sliding into civil war.
The former U.N. chief Annan, in his capacity as U.N.-Arab League envoy, will visit Assad on Saturday and also plans to meet the Syrian opposition before leaving the country on Sunday.
Annan has called for a political solution, but dissidents say there is no room for dialogue amid Assad's crackdown.
"If (Annan) can persuade Russia to back a transitional plan, the regime would be confronted with the choice of either agreeing to negotiate in good faith or facing near-total isolation through loss of a key ally," the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a paper this week.
Along with China, Russia has opposed any U.N. resolution, fearing Libya-style military intervention, a position Germany hoped might change after Vladimir Putin's victory in the presidential election on Sunday.
"I hope that Russia has a clearer view after the election. It is crucial that the U.N. Security Council gives a clear statement that shows that we stand by the people of Syria and are against violence and repression," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told reporters at an EU meeting in Denmark.
"We hope that after the election in Russia there is new movement possible. We will see this in the next days and hours."
Russia, an old ally of Damascus and its main arms supplier, has defended Assad against his Western and Arab critics, twice joining China in vetoing U.N. resolutions on Syria.
A Russian diplomat said Assad was battling al Qaeda-backed "terrorists" including at least 15,000 foreign fighters who would seize cities if government troops withdrew. The Syrian opposition denies any al Qaeda role in the uprising.
France's Foreign Ministry said Paris would not accept any U.N. Security Council resolution which would assign responsibility for the violence in Syria equally between the Syrian government and the opposition.
"There is no equivalence between the savage repression that Bashar al-Assad's clan has perpetuated for months and the legitimate desire of the Syrian people for the respect of their rights," said ministry spokesman Bernard Valero.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe denied Russian suggestions the West was seeking a pretext for military action against Assad: "The option of any military intervention is not on the table," he said.
China, which despatched an envoy to Syria this week, said on Friday it would send an assistant foreign minister to the Middle East and to France to discuss a way forward.
Beijing urged Annan to "push for all sides in Syria to end their violence and start the process of peace talks".
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, who visited Homs this week, said Assad's government had agreed to join U.N. agencies in a "limited assessment" of civilian needs in Syria, but had not met her request for unhindered access for aid groups.
Syrian officials had asked for more time, she told a news conference in Ankara after visiting Syrian refugees arriving in growing numbers in border camps in Turkey.
Amos said she was "devastated" at the destruction she saw in Homs and that she wanted to know the fate of civilians who had lived in the city's Baba Amr district, which rebel fighters left on March 1 after a 26-day siege.
Activists in the city said Amos's visit had changed nothing. "We want to stop the killing and to eat," said Waleed Fares, speaking from Khalidiya district in Homs.
The United Nations estimates at least 25,000 refugees have fled Syria in the past year, said Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency.
The U.N. figures were based mainly on refugees who have registered with the UNHCR. Many others have fled to neighbouring countries without registering. Edwards said significant numbers of Syrians are also thought to be displaced within the country.
Syrian security forces have killed well over 7,500 people since the anti-Assad uprising began a year ago, according to a U.N. estimate. The government said in December that "armed terrorists" had killed more than 2,000 soldiers and police.