International pressure is mounting on Syria’s president, with key European governments and the United Nations denouncing a deadly crackdown that has failed to dampen a popular uprising.
In the latest violence, security forces killed a student today during a protest at Damascus University in the capital, bringing the death toll to well over 170 after more than three weeks of unrest, activists said.
There were conflicting reports about whether the student was shot or beaten to death.
The United States, France, Germany and Britain demanded an immediate end to the bloodshed.
“Reform and repression are incompatible,” the French Foreign Ministry said.
The strong criticism marks a turning point because many major powers have so far held back on condemning President Bashar Assad outright, instead casting him as a reformer who has been constrained by members of his late father’s old guard.
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said late last month that Assad was a “different leader” than Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and that many members of Congress who have visited the country “believe he’s a reformer”.
But with the mounting casualties, the criticism has grown.
“We’re aware of continuing protests on a massive scale or a large scale,” said US State Department spokesman Mark Toner. He called on the government to lift restrictions on the media and “to refrain from any further violence against peaceful protesters.”
Protests erupted in Syria more than three weeks ago and have been growing steadily, with tens of thousands of people calling for sweeping reforms in one of the most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. The Assad family has kept an iron grip on power for 40 years, in part by crushing dissent.
The unrest could have repercussions well beyond Syria’s borders, given the country’s role as Iran’s top Arab ally and a main backer of the militant Hezbollah and Hamas movements.
United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon personally called Assad to say he was “greatly disturbed” by the reports of violence.
The criticism from France was particularly significant, because French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been seen generally supportive of Assad in the past few years.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague called the violence “unacceptable” and said “political reform ... is the only legitimate response to demands from the Syrian people”.
Assad blames the violence on armed gangs rather than reform-seekers and has vowed to crush further unrest.
He has made a series of overtures to try and appease the growing outrage, including sacking local officials and granting Syrian nationality to thousands of Kurds, a long-ostracised minority.
But the gestures have failed to satisfy protesters who are demanding political freedoms and an end to the decades-old despised emergency laws that give the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge.