Human rights groups say that more than 100 people may have been killed when troops opened fire on a mosque

protesters in daraa
© ReutersProtesters drag away a body as it lies among others in a street during a demonstration in Daraa.
Syria's government pledged to consider protesters' "legitimate demands" after thousands took to the streets for the funerals of nine people killed by the military.

Rights activists described Wednesday's shootings in the southern city of Deraa as a massacre, claiming that more than 100 people may have been killed when troops fired on a mosque in the early hours and throughout the day.

With protests called for after Friday prayers, Buthaina Shaaban, adviser to President Bashar al-Assad, announced that the government would consider ending Syria's emergency law and revise legislation for political parties and the media. Similar reform pledges have been announced in the past, and are unlikely to satisfy protesters.

In Deraa, funeral-goers chanted "God, Syria, Freedom" and "The blood of martyrs is not spilt in vain!", Reuters news agency reported. Some reports said that up to 20,000 people attended, but this could not be verified. The city has been cordoned off .

Deraa's hospital reported receiving 37 bodies from Wednesday's violence. YouTube videos apparently showed bloody scenes at the mosque.

Electricity and communications in the city were cut before the attack, which sources said was by a unit of forces headed by the president's brother, Maher al-Assad.

"This is a crime against humanity because forces opened fire on unarmed civilians without any warning," said Radwan Ziadeh, head of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights and a visiting scholar at Harvard University.

"Eyewitnesses say security forces stopped ambulances from helping. This would be a violation of international humanitarian law."

The Omari mosque became a focal point and makeshift hospital when protests started a week ago; many people were afraid to go to the main hospital for fear of arrest, said Ziadeh. He alleged that more than 300 people had been detained in Deraa.

In a sign of the seriousness of the unrest, the Syrian pound's value on the black market dropped to its lowest rate since Syria was forced to pull its troops out of Lebanon in 2005, local traders said.

There has been no notable unrest in Damascus city centre, but the streets are unusually quiet while pro-Assad cars honk horns and wave flags and photographs of the president.

Observers say it is unclear whether the government can quell unrest. Earlier in the week, it looked like the situation could be resolved. Deraa's demands were predominantly local, including the release of the city's political prisoners, the ability to buy and sell property without permission, and the dismissal of the region's governor, Faisal Kolthoum.

But the government responded in a violent and contradictory fashion that has caused protests to escalate. It has blamed the violence on outsiders and armed gangs whilst simultaneously rounding up protesters and activists.

"The use of violence is completely abhorrent and was a deliberate choice to escalate the situation," said one Western diplomat in Damascus. "The government can't continue to play bad cop, good cop; no-one believes it any more."

Anger and frustration has risen around the country, and Facebook sites have called for days of protest in solidarity with Deraa. The government's reform announcement may not have much impact; it lacked substance and reiterated other pledges in recent months to look into media and political parties laws.

Concessions too little and too late were a feature of the toppling of the Tunisian and Egyptian leaders.

"For years they think we have been happy with tiny reforms; it is insulting," says one 30-year-old Damascene man who asked not to be named. "We no longer believe change will come when they pledge something."

"It is impossible to predict the situation now," said Rime Allaf, a Syria expert at London's Chatham House. "It will depend on whether unrest spreads. People are deciding whether to overcome their fears and come out to the streets."

The threat of arrest has long deterred Syrians from active protest, while fears of a sectarian fallout in the absence of a strong leader loom large.

Syria's many religious sects are ruled by the minority Alawite Muslim community of al-Assad, and the army is widely penetrated by Alawites and Sunni loyalists. This makes the possibility of the army joining the protesters as happened in Egypt and Tunisia unlikely. Instead, Syrians look to Libya as foretaste of what might come.

Christian and Kurdish sources told the Guardian that there was a growing sense of the need to act. But the situation has been complicated by a rising sectarian rhetoric on Facebook and discussion forums.

What happens after Friday prayers will be key. As well as offering concessions, in an attempt to nip protests in the bud, scores of people have been arrested in the last few days, according to human rights organisations.

Mosques, being one of the few places where large gatherings, prohibited under emergency law, can take place, are likely to be the starting point of any protests.

Katherine Marsh is a pseudonym for a journalist living in Damascus