By Suleiman al-Khalidi
DERAA, Syria (Reuters) - The main hospital in the southern Syrian city of Deraa has received the bodies of at least 25 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 32 civilians have been killed since Friday.
"We received them at 5 p.m. yesterday (11 a.m. ET)). They all had bullet wounds," the official, who declined to be named, told Reuters.
On Thursday Syrian soldiers wielding AK-47s roamed the streets of the southern city. Secret police and special police units wearing all black have been more visible in Deraa since the protests erupted last Friday.
The army has so far taken a secondary role -- mostly manning checkpoints -- in confronting demonstrations that erupted last week in Syria's agricultural heartland, demanding political freedoms and an end to corruption.
Witnesses said hundreds of soldiers patrolled Deraa's main streets as heavy rain fell, with scores manning intersections to prevent public gatherings. Travelers on a main highway near Deraa said they saw convoys of trucks carrying up to 2,000 soldiers heading to Deraa on Wednesday night.
Syria's Baathist rulers have a history of crushing opposition violently in their 48 years in power.
In 1982, President Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, sent troops to the conservative religious city of Hama to crush the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, killing thousands.
Syria's Alawite rulers run a country which is majority Sunni. Protesters in Deraa, a mainly Sunni city, have shouted slogans against the government's alliance with Shi'ite Iran, breaking a taboo on criticizing Syrian foreign policy.
Parents whose sons were missing in Deraa after they came under attack from security forces on Wednesday were trying to find out what happened to them, residents said.
"People are still hysterical. They do not know whether their sons are dead or alive. No one yet knows how many people are dead. There could be scores," one resident said.
"I counted six bodies near the 26th of October Square at 3:30 p.m. yesterday," said one Deraa resident who declined to be named for fear of being traced and arrested.
There were unconfirmed reports that dozens more bodies were taken to Tafas hospital outside the city, they added.
VOCAL ANTI-IRANIAN SENTIMENT
Deraa, on the Jordanian border, has long been a stronghold of the Baath Party, which recruits cadres from the region. But in recent days it has become a focus of unprecedented protests against President Assad.
Assad, a close ally of Iran, key player in neighboring 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.
In a separate attack just after midnight in the early hours of Wednesday, security forces fired at protesters in the vicinity of the Omari mosque in Deraa's old quarter, residents said.
Two people killed in that attack, a man and a woman called Ibtissam Masalmeh, were buried in Deraa on Wednesday. Thousands marched in the funeral chanting calls for freedom, and -- for the first time since protests broke out on Friday -- slogans against Iran and Lebanon's armed Shi'ite movement Hezbollah.
"Honourable Syrians don't rely on Iran or Hezbollah," they chanted..
YouTube footage showed what was purported to be the street in front of the mosque before the attack, with sound of gunfire audible and a person inside the mosque grounds yelling: "Brother don't shoot. This country is big enough for me and you."
The United Nations, France and the United States condemned the violence. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for a "transparent investigation" into the killings and for those responsible to be held accountable.
France, which occupied Syria from 1925 to 1946, urged the ruling elite to open up to dialogue and democratic change.
An official Syrian statement said "outside parties" were spreading lies about the situation in Deraa and blamed "armed gangs" for the violence.
The Baath Party has banned opposition and enforced emergency laws since 1963. But the wave of Arab unrest which has toppled leaders in Tunisia and Egypt presents Assad with the biggest challenge to his rule since he succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for 30 years until his death in 2000.
(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; writing by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Damascus, editing by Myra MacDonald)