DAMASCUS — Syria vowed on Saturday to hold "free and transparent" elections by the end of 2011 as Arab states in the Gulf joined a chorus of Western pressure over its deadly suppression of anti-regime protests.
An activist, meanwhile, said hundreds of tanks and armoured cars had been deployed in the northeastern city of Deir Ezzor and around Homs in central Syria.
"Syria will hold free and transparent elections that will give birth to a parliament representing the aspirations of the Syrian people," Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said in a meeting with ambassadors posted to Damascus.
"The general elections will be held before the end of the year," Muallem said, quoted by the official SANA news agency.
The foreign minister stressed "the commitment of the Syrian leadership to the continued reform process and implementation of measures announced by President (Bashar al-) Assad."
The embattled president issued a decree on Thursday allowing opposition political parties, but the move was largely dismissed by the opposition as a ploy to appease protesters.
The oil-rich Arab monarchies of the Gulf on Saturday turned up the heat on Damascus, with the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council calling in a statement for an "immediate end to violence... and bloodshed."
They urged a "resort to wisdom and introducing serious and necessary reforms."
Their call followed a pledge by the US, French and German leaders to consider new steps to punish Syria after a deadly crackdown on the first Friday of Ramadan, the holy Muslim month of fasting.
President Barack Obama spoke separately to France's Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as Western nations cranked up pressure on Assad.
They "condemned the Assad regime's continued use of indiscriminate violence," the White House said. They "also agreed to consider additional steps to pressure the Assad regime and support the Syrian people."
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, in an interview to be published on Sunday, said Assad no longer has a future in Syrian politics.
"I don't believe that Assad has a political future ahead of him which is supported by the Syrian people," Westerwelle told the newspaper Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.
The Syrian government has sought to crush the democracy movement with brutal force, killing around 1,650 civilians and arresting thousands of dissenters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory, told AFP by telephone that around 250 tanks and armoured cars were deployed in four districts of Deir Ezzor on Saturday.
The tanks were also posted around the airport in Deir Ezzor, many of whose residents started to flee the city from Wednesday, fearing imminent military action.
Syrian opposition members say it's questionable whether the move could end decades of single-party Baathist rule without constitutional reform. Observers say one of the articles of the Syrian constitution guarantees supremacy for the ruling Baath party.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, said 2,000 people have died in the unrest, mostly demonstrators.
Moallem said Syria is intent on fostering security, stopping vandalism, and pursuing democracy and progress, SANA reported.
Anti-government protests erupted across Syria on Friday, but the turbulent city of Hama appeared to have borne the brunt of it.
The city endured steady shelling and bombing Friday morning while the government's military offensive continued in full swing, said a resident whom CNN has not identified for his safety.
Two witnesses, who talked to CNN independently, said scores of people -- one said he had counted 53; the other said 58 -- were killed instantly when a tank positioned 150 meters from Hurani Hospital launched an artillery shell that landed in front of the building. One opposition activist estimated that 300 people have died in violence in Hama during the past six days.
The observatory put Friday's death toll in Syria -- not including Hama -- at 14. But a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees cited 21 deaths -- not including Hama.
The U.S. Department of State is urging U.S. citizens in Syria to depart immediately while commercial transportation is available.