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Syrian activists in sit-in protest

More than 5,000 anti-government protesters in Syria have taken over the main square of the country's third-largest city, Homs, vowing to occupy the site until President Bashar Assad is ousted.

The government, however, blamed the weeks of anti-government unrest in the country on ultra-conservative Muslims seeking to establish a fundamentalist state and terrorise the people in the latest official effort to portray the reform movement as populated by extremists.

The stand-off in Homs followed funeral processions by more than 10,000 mourners for some of those killed in clashes on Sunday that a rights group said left at least 12 people dead. It also brought a high-stakes challenge to security forces over whether to risk more bloodshed - and international backlash - by trying to clear the square.

In the past month, Syrian security forces have launched a deadly crackdown on demonstrations, killing at least 200 people, according to human rights groups. Many Syrians also say pro-government thugs - known as Shabiha - have terrorised neighbourhoods with tactics such as opening fire into the air.

The government has in the past blamed "armed gangs" seeking to stir up unrest for many of the killings, such as the ones who fatally shot seven people, including three army officers, on Sunday in Homs.

On Monday, the Interior Ministry identified the gangs as "armed Salafi groups", referring to an ultra-conservative form of Islam that has its roots in Saudi Arabia and can be found all over the region.

The statement carried by the state news agency said they were seeking to establish "emirates" and were "abusing the freedoms and reforms launched in the comprehensive programme with a timetable by President Bashar Assad".

Mr Assad has been playing on fears of sectarian warfare as he works to quell any popular support for the uprising and has blamed the unrest on a foreign plot to sow sectarian strife - echoing pronouncements from almost every other besieged leader in the region.

Earlier in the day, at least six coffins were carried by the massive funeral procession in Homs, about 100 miles north of Damascus, said two witnesses. Security forces stayed away from the mourners in an apparent move to avoid confrontation, said the witnesses.

After the funeral, thousands of people marched to Homs' main Sa'a Jadida Square, or the New Clock Square, where they chanted "people want to bring down the regime" and "peaceful, peaceful", the witnesses said.

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