Syrian troops shelled a restive district and conducted sweeping raids Saturday, killing at least three people one day after 40 were reported to have died in one of the deadliest crackdowns in months in the country's uprising, activists said.
The violence prompted strong criticism from the Arab League, which issued a statement expressing "disgust" at Friday's killings. An Arab League committee was set to meet Sunday in Qatar with a Syrian delegation over ways to solve the crisis stemming from the 7-month uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also appealed for "military operations against civilians to stop at once."
The Syrian opposition's two main activist groups, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordinating Committees, said shells slammed into the Baba Amr district of Homs on Saturday, killing at least three people. Raids and arrests also were reported around the eastern city of Deir el-Zour.
The popular revolt against Assad's regime has proved remarkably resilient over the past seven months, with protests erupting every week despite the near-certainty the government will respond with bullets and tear gas. The U.N. estimates the regime crackdown on the protests has killed 3,000 people since March.
Much of the bloodshed Friday happened after protests had ended and security forces armed with machine guns chased protesters and activists, according to opposition groups monitoring the demonstrations. Authorities disrupted telephone and Internet service, they said. At least 40 people were killed, according to the observatory and the LCC.
The Syrian government insists the unrest is being driven by terrorists and foreign extremists looking to stir up sectarian strife, and blames the foreign media for spreading lies. The state-run news agency said the condemnation from the Arab League was based on "media lies."
Damascus has largely sealed off the country from foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting, making it difficult to confirm events on the ground. Key sources of information are amateur videos posted online, witness accounts and details gathered by activist groups.
It is difficult to gauge the strength of the revolt in Syria, a country of 22 million people. The crackdown does not appear to have significantly reduced the number of protests, but neither does the regime appear to be in any imminent danger of collapse.
The result has been a monthslong stalemate.
Assad enjoys a measure of support in Syria. His main base at home includes Syrians who have benefited financially from the regime, minority groups who feel they will be targeted if the Sunni majority takes over, and others who see no clear and safe alternative to Assad.
Many Syrians and outside analysts consider sectarian warfare to be a real and frightening possibility. Syrians see their country as a fragile jigsaw puzzle of ethnic and religious groups including Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Christians, Kurds, Druse, Circassians, Armenians and more.
With no signs of movement toward the regime's collapse, many protesters are starting to see the limits of peaceful protests, particularly when compared to the armed uprising in Libya that drove Moammar Gadhafi from power _ albeit with NATO air support.
The mass demonstrations in Syria have shaken one of the most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, but the opposition has made no major gains in recent months, it holds no territory and still has no clear leadership.
In recent weeks, there have been growing signs that once-peaceful Syrian protesters are increasingly taking up arms to fight the military crackdown. There also are signs that army defectors are turning on the regime, although their strength is difficult to measure without independent access to the country.