Syria will take very important decisions soon, an adviser to President Bashar al-Assad said on Thursday after a week of anti-government protests in the southern city of Deraa.
"The demands of the people of Deraa are under study and concern. They are justified," Bouthaina Shaaban said. "The coming period will witness important decisions on all levels," she told reporters.
The statement came after the main hospital in the southern Syrian city of Deraa has received the bodies of at least 37 protesters who were killed in a confrontation with security forces, a hospital official said on Thursday.
Security forces opened fire on hundreds of youths at the northern entrance to Deraa on Wednesday afternoon, according to witnesses, in a dramatic escalation of nearly a week of protests in which at least 44 civilians have been killed since Friday.
Around 20,000 people marched on Thursday in the funerals for nine of those killed, chanting freedom slogans and denying official accounts that infiltrators and "armed gangs" are behind the killings and violence in Deraa.
"Traitors do not kill their own people ... God, Syria, Freedom. The blood of martyrs is not spilt in waste!" they chanted in Deraa's southern cemetery.
As Syrian soldiers armed with AK-47s roamed the streets of the southern city, residents emptied shops of staples and basic goods and said they feared the government of President Bashar al-Assad was intent on crushing the revolt by force.
Assad, a close ally of Iran, key player in neighbouring Lebanon and supporter of militant groups opposed to Israel, has dismissed rising demands for reform in Syria, a country of 20 million people run by the Baath Party since a 1963 coup.
A government statement said "outside parties" were spreading lies about the situation in Deraa, which is near the Jordanian border. It blamed "armed gangs" for the violence.
Some people recalled the 1982 massacre in Hama, when Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, sent troops to the conservative religious city to crush the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Human rights groups say at least 20,000 died.
"If the rest of Syria does not erupt on Friday, we will be facing annihilation," said one resident, referring to Friday prayers, the only time citizens are allowed to gather en masse without government permission.
The environment today is very different from that of 1982, when Syria was supported by the Soviet Union and its minority Alawite rulers were firming up their control of the country against religious and secular opponents without serious criticism from the international community.
Assad, who is facing mounting criticism by the West for the bloodshed in Deraa, "is not against any Syrian citizen", Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Shara was quoted as saying this week.
The protesters in Deraa, a mainly Sunni city, have shouted slogans against the government's alliance with Shi'ite Iran, breaking a taboo on criticising Syrian foreign policy.
But their slogans have also emphasised the unity of Syria, a country of myriad sects and ethnicities where Islamists have been allowed by the government to exercise more social influence on society in the last few years.
Deraa is tribal, with emphasis on big families and significant income from expatriates around the world. The people are conservative, but old leftist and Nasserite influences linger. The Baath Party, which has a secular ideology, and the army, have recruited many cadres from Deraa.
The army has so far taken a secondary role -- mostly manning checkpoints -- in confronting demonstrations. Secret police and special police units wearing all black have been more visible in Deraa since the protests erupted last Friday.
Witnesses said hundreds of soldiers patrolled Deraa's main streets as heavy rain fell, with scores manning intersections to prevent public gatherings. Travellers on a main highway near Deraa said they saw convoys of trucks carrying up to 2,000 soldiers heading to Deraa on Wednesday night.