By Suleiman al-Khalidi
DERAA, Syria (Reuters) - 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 Thursday.
Security forces opened fire on hundreds of youths at the northern entrance to Deraa 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 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 spilled 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 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.
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 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 criticizing Syrian foreign policy.
But their slogans have also emphasized 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. Travelers on a main highway near Deraa said they saw convoys of trucks carrying up to 2,000 soldiers heading to Deraa Wednesday night.
VOCAL ANTI-IRANIAN SENTIMENT
In a separate attack 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 Wednesday. Thousands marched in the funeral chanting calls for freedom, and -- for the first time since protests broke out Friday -- slogans against Iran and Lebanon's armed Shi'ite movement Hezbollah.
"Honorable 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 and the United States condemned the violence. France, which occupied Syria from 1925 to 1946, urged the ruling elite to open up to dialogue and democratic change.
Britain called on Syria to respect people's right to peaceful protest and to take action on their grievances.
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)