Syrian President Bashar al-Assad faced dissent within government ranks with more than 200 members of his Baath Party resigning and signs of discontent within the army over the violent repression of pro-democracy protests.
Two hundred party members from Deraa province and surrounding regions resigned on Wednesday after the government sent in tanks to crush resistance in the city of Deraa. At least 35 civilians were killed in the attack, rights groups said.
Diplomats said signs were also emerging of discontent within the army where the majority of troops are Sunni Muslims, but most officers belong to the same minority Alawite sect as Mr. Assad.
Mr. Assad sent the ultra-loyal Fourth Mechanized Division, commanded by his brother Maher, into Deraa on Monday. Reports from opposition figures and Deraa residents, which could not be confirmed, said that several soldiers from another unit had refused to fire on civilians.
"The largest funerals in Syria so far have been for soldiers who have refused to obey orders to shoot protesters and were summarily executed on the spot," a senior diplomat said.
Another diplomat said there was at least one instance this month of soldiers confronting secret police to stop them shooting at protesters.
"No one is saying that Assad is about to lose control of the army, but once you start using the army to slaughter your own people, it is a sign of weakness," he said.
The sound of gunfire was heard in Deraa on Wednesday night. Water, electricity and communications remained cut and essential supplies were running low, residents said.
"The martyrs are being kept in refrigerator trucks used normally to transport produce, but they cannot move with the army firing randomly. We pour alcohol on the bodies to lessen the stench," one of the residents said.
The death toll in almost six weeks of protests rose to 450, a rights group said.
Protests erupted in Deraa after security police arrested two prominent women in the city, a doctor and an engineer, for expressing political views, and detained 15 children who wrote slogans on the walls demanding freedom, modelled on the cries of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions.
Once a recruiting ground for the Baath and secret police, Deraa has become the cradle of Syria's uprising.
Syria has been dominated by the Assad family since Bashar's father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, took power in a 1970 coup. The younger Assad kept intact the autocratic political system he inherited in 2000 while the family expanded its control over the country's struggling economy.
Mr. Assad's decision to storm Deraa echoed his father's 1982 attack on the city of Hama to crush an uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Up to 30,000 people were killed with little objection from the international community.
Bashar al-Assad's attack on Deraa has drawn threats of sanctions from Western powers but the West remains wary of contemplating action that could contribute to toppling him.