Damascus: Washington toughened its stance on Syria, calling for a halt to a nearly three-month crackdown on democracy protests, as regime forces backed by helicopter gunships killed at least 25 demonstrators.
The deaths came as harrowing accounts began to emerge from some of the thousands of refugees who fled to Turkey of the brutality of the crackdown at the latest flashpoint in the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughur.
"The United States strongly condemns the Syrian government’s outrageous use of violence across Syria today and particularly in the northwestern region," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
"There must be an immediate end to the brutality and violence."
The statement contained a clear sign of growing US impatience over Syria after top officials had repeatedly called for President Bashar al-Assad to embrace reform or step aside -- but stopped short of demanding his departure.
Mourners are on Saturday expected to bury those killed, a day after security forces shot dead at least 25 protesters who poured on to the streets of towns and cities across the country following the weekly Muslim main prayers.
Fridays have become a rallying point in the revolt against Assad`s regime, whose backlash on pro-democracy protests that erupted in mid-March has killed more than 1,200 civilians, rights groups say.
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reported that helicopters flying over Maaret al-Numan had fired on a police station which protesters had seized from the security forces.
State television reported that "armed terrorists" had opened fire there, killing and wounding members of the police and security forces.
Nine people were also killed in the port of Latakia, Abdel Rahman added; and another two died in the Bosra al-Harir area of southern Daraa province, the focus of pro-democracy protests that have shaken Syria since mid-March.
State television said "armed men" had fired at security forces in Bosra al-Harir, killing a security force member and a civilian.
Activists said three civilians were also killed in the Qabun district of Damascus.
State television said the operation in Jisr al-Shughur had come "at the request of residents" to deal with "armed gangs". Soldiers had arrested "elements of the armed groups" there, it said.
But one villager said that advancing troops had bombarded the surrounding villages and torched wheat fields in the village of Al-Ziyara, 15 kilometres (nine miles) southeast of Jisr al-Shughur.
Rights activists say the town is largely deserted after most of its 50,000 inhabitants fled, many to neighbouring Turkey, as tanks and troops began converging there midweek.
The turmoil has forced nearly 3,000 Syrians to seek refuge across the border in Turkey, Anatolia news agency reported.
In the Turkish city of Antakya, Nabil, one of the last Syrian aid workers out of Jisr al-Shughur, recalled the roar of helicopters and a "skull split in two" before he himself collapsed with a bullet in his back.
Bed-ridden in a hospital, the Red Crescent employee recounted his last sights of the town last weekend, where Damascus said 120 police and troops were massacred amid anti-regime protests.
"The wounded, yes, I`ve seen hundreds. And dozens of deaths, maybe a hundred," the 29-year-old said, adding that he also saw victims of torture.
"I saw a dead person with a skull split in two, like a book. It must have been an explosive bullet. A Kalashnikov bullet would not normally produce such a result," he said.
Turkey`s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a personal friend of Assad, on Friday denounced Syria in Ankara`s harshest reaction yet to the unrest.
"Unfortunately they do not behave humanely," Erdogan said in a television interview.
The crackdown was "unacceptable" and would "necessarily" lead the UN Security Council to step in, he added.
But UN officials reported Assad had refused to take telephone calls from UN chief Ban Ki-moon, an outspoken critic of the crackdown.
The UN secretary general tried to call Assad on Thursday but had been told the Syrian leader was "not available," UN spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters.
Later, Ban reaffirmed in a statement that "the use of military force against civilians is unacceptable" and expressed deep concern at the heavy civilian toll.
Security Council diplomats held fresh talks on Friday on a proposed European resolution condemning Syria`s deadly crackdown but got no closer to a full vote. Talks were set to be extended through the weekend.