Beirut: Syria's authoritarian regime turned bloody on Saturday, with the government and protesters both claiming to have sustained heavy casualties as the country's three-week uprising entered a dangerous new phase.

Human rights activists and witnesses said that Syrian security forces opened fire on tens of thousands of protesters in the volatile southern city of Daraa, killing 25 people and wounding hundreds. But state-run TV said 19 policemen and members of the security forces were killed when gunmen opened fire on them.

It was the first significant claim of casualties by the Syrian government, which has contended that armed gangs rather than true reform-seekers are behind the unrest.

Protest organisers have called on Syrians to take to the streets every Friday for the past three weeks, demanding change in one of the most rigid nations in the Middle East.

Syria's National Organization for Human Rights said at least 32 people were killed nationwide on Friday. That lifts the death toll from three weeks of protests to more than 170 people.

The protests have shaken the regime of President Bashar Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years. Assad, a British-trained eye doctor, inherited power from his father 11 years ago and tried to help the country emerge from years of international isolation and lift Soviet-style economic restrictions.

But despite early promises of social and political reform, Assad has slipped back into the autocratic ways and following his father’s footsteps.

Assad has offered some limited measures of reform as the protests gathered steam, such as firing local officials and forming committees to look into replacing the country's despised emergency laws, which allow the regime to arrest people without charge. On Thursday, he granted citizenship to thousands of Kurds, fulfilling a decades-old demand of the country's long-ostracised minority.

(Agencies)