Tens of thousands of Syrians, some of them calling for their president's execution, protested against the authoritarian regime on Friday, as the Arab League indefinitely postponed a meeting on the crisis because of divisions over how to stop the bloodshed.
Security forces opened fire during protests and conducted security raids in several places around the country, killing at least 10 people, most of them in Syria's rebellious central region, activists said. The army also sent reinforcements into a southern area where military defectors recently launched deadly attacks on regime troops.
The demonstrators urged Arab leaders to move quickly to try to end the violence, saying the Arab League's delays were allowing the regime of President Bashar Assad more time to kill.
"The Arab League is killing us," read some of the banners held at Friday's demonstrations.
The 22-member League has proposed a peace plan, suspended Syria's membership and imposed sanctions but has not been able to agree on next steps after Syria refused to allow in monitors to ensure compliance with the peace proposal.
It was supposed to meet Saturday, but an Arab League diplomat said divisions among members nations over what to do next forced a delay. Instead, a smaller group of five Arab foreign ministers tasked with overseeing the implementation of the body's demands on Syria will meet Saturday in Doha, Qatar, he said.
The U.N. Security Council is waiting to see what the Arab League does before it goes ahead with a U.N. resolution. Because of Russia's strong objections to sanctions, Western powers want to follow the Arab League's lead.
The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the details, said Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Oman favor an Arab-led solution to the Syrian crisis and reject Western political interference. Another camp led by Gulf nations, as well as Tunisia and Libya, is seeking the help of the international community in pushing for Assad's ouster, he said.
Despite their differences, Arab leaders are opposed to a scenario similar to that of Libya, where NATO intervention helped rebels fighters oust Moammar Gadhafi and shattered the country's security apparatus.
Syria has said it would accept Arab monitors under certain conditions, including the lifting of sanctions. The Arab League has said it is still studying the Syrian conditions.
Meanwhile, Syria's main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, held its first congress in Tunisia Friday in an attempt to inject "more force and energy" into the opposition movement.
"The goal is to invest our struggle with more force and energy to stop the killings that the criminal regime does not cease to carry out," said council leader Burhan Ghalioun.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 200,000 people marched Friday in different neighborhoods of the restive central city of Homs to denounce Assad's regime. The turnout could not be confirmed as Syrian authorities have banned most journalists from covering events on the ground.
The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees activist network both said security forces killed at least 10 people, six of them in Homs.
A Homs-based activist said about 10,000 protesters took part in a demonstration in the tense neighborhood of Khaldiyeh alone and dispersed peacefully without being attacked by security forces. Tens of thousands took part in other protests around the city, said the activist who asked that his name not be made public for fear of government reprisals.
He said security forces opened fire in the air before the protesters came out of mosques, but as soon as they came out to the streets the shooting stopped.
"The people want to execute the president," the crowds in Khaldiyeh chanted, according to the activist.
Security personnel watched from a distance and did not intervene in that neighborhood, he said.
"It might be a goodwill gesture by the regime ahead of the Russian initiative," the activist said, referring to Russian attempts at the U.N. to end the crisis. "It looks as if the regime is showing tacit approval of the Russian initiative."
Russia began circulating a draft U.N. Security Council resolution Thursday it said was designed to resolve the conflict in Syria. The draft calls for an end to all violence but does not contain sanctions.
Russia has criticized opponents of Assad's rule for employing violent tactics.
In Washington, the State Department called the Russian move "good news" but said the U.S. would not vote for the resolution unless it distinguishes the actions of peaceful protesters from those of the government. In Paris, the French Foreign Ministry echoed that stance.
In a new report, the U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights said it had found evidence of government forces denying wounded civilians medical treatment as well as attacking hospitals and detaining and torturing doctors for treating wounded civilians.
"Hospitals are supposed to be a place of healing, but instead patients are being dragged away by security forces for interrogation and torture," said Richard Sollom, deputy director of the group.
Medical personnel who treat wounded protesters risk not only their careers, but also their lives, he added.
Friday's protests came a day after Syrian army defectors killed 27 government security personnel in the southern province of Daraa in apparently coordinated attacks that were among the deadliest by rebel troops so far.
Syria has seen a sharp escalation in armed clashes recently, raising concerns the country of 22 million is headed toward civil war. The U.N. raised its death toll for the Syrian uprising substantially this week, saying more 5,000 people have been killed since the revolt began nine months ago.
Also Friday, Italy arranged a humanitarian aid flight for some 6,000 Syrian refugees who fled to Lebanon in recent months. The plane carrying 17 tons of aid including medical kits, electric generators, blankets and water containers arrived in Beirut Friday, Lebanese and Italian officials said.
Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy in Cairo and Bouazza Ben Bouazza in Tunis, Tunisia, contributed to this report.