Gunmen opened fire on a car carrying a senior Syrian state prosecutor and a judge in the northwest province of Idlib, killing both of them and their driver, state media said.
State news agency SANA said on Sunday that Idlib provincial state prosecutor Nidal Ghazal and Judge Mohammed Ziadeh were killed instantly in the attack.
A day earlier, SANA said gunmen shot dead Jamal al-Bish, member of the city council of the nearby northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest. It said he was killed outside the city, a centre of support for Assad that has been relatively quiet since the uprising began.
Police and armed patrols fanned out in the Syrian capital's Mezze district to prevent a repeat of protests against President Bashar al-Assad that have threatened his grip on Damascus, opposition activists said.
On the international front, Egypt said it was withdrawing its ambassador to Syria and China said it believed a peaceful solution to the crisis was still possible.
China's official Xinhua news agency reflected Beijing's view a day after a Chinese envoy met Assad in Damascus while thousands of Syrians demonstrated in the heart of the capital in one of the biggest anti-government rallies there since a nationwide uprising started nearly a year ago.
On Sunday, the body of Samer al-Khatib, a young protester who was killed when security forces opened fire on the protest, was buried in Mezze early in the morning.
Security forces maintained a heavy presence to prevent the funeral from turning into an anti-Assad demonstration, opposition activists contacted by Reuters from Amman said.
Fifteen pick-up trucks carrying security police and armed pro-Assad armed men, known as 'shabbiha', surrounded the funeral as Khatib was buried quietly, they said.
Police cars and militia jeeps patrolled Mezze while secret police agents spread out on foot, stopping men at random and checking their identification cards, they said.
"Walking in Mezze now carries the risk of arrest. The area is quiet and even the popular food shops in Sheikh Saad are empty," activist Moaz al-Shami said, referring to a main street.
Assad, who belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, in a majority Sunni country, says he is fighting foreign-backed terrorists.
Saturday's shooting by security forces took place as a Chinese envoy, Foreign Minister Zhai Jun met Assad and appealed to all sides to end the violence.
Zhai also expressed Beijing's support for Assad's plan to hold a referendum and multi-party elections within four months, a move the West and some in Syria's fragmented opposition movement have dismissed as a sham.
China has emerged as a leading player in the multiple international efforts to end the bloodshed in Syria and is one of Assad's main defenders.
"China believes, as many others do, there is still hope the Syria crisis can be resolved through peaceful dialogue between the opposition and the government, contrary to some Western countries' argument that time is running out for talks in Syria," the Xinhua commentary said.
It also criticised the West's stance, highlighting differences between foreign powers over how to deal with the conflict.
Western countries were "driven less by their self-proclaimed 'lofty goal' of liberalizing the Syrian people than by geopolitical considerations", Xinhua said.
The words might bring a measure of comfort to Assad, who is now generally reviled in the West for a crackdown in which his security forces have killed several thousand people.
Egypt recalls ambassador
Egypt on Sunday became the latest Arab country to scale back its relations with the embattled regime in Damascus.
Egypt's recalling of Shawqy Ismail, its ambassador to Syria, comes as Arab states continue to pile pressure on Damascus over its crackdown on dissent that has left thousands dead.
Mohammed Amr, the foreign minister "summoned the Egyptian ambassador to Damascus ... and it was decided that the ambassador will remain in Cairo until further notice," Amr Rushdi, an Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman, said in a statement on Sunday.
Also on Saturday, two Iranian warships docked at a Syrian port city of Tartous, the Iranian broadcaster Press TV reported.
The warships reached Tartous, northwest of the capital Damascus, after crossing the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea.
The crossing was the second in a year by Iranian warships, Iran's navy chief said.
'Dividing the country'
Syria's main opposition groups have rejected a newly drafted constitution that could end nearly five decades of single-party rule, and have urged voters to boycott a February 26 referendum on the charter.
Assad for his part said on Satuday that the events in Syria were "aimed at dividing the country and delivering a blow to its geopolitical position and historical role in the region," the official SANA news agency reported.
He said he was determined to "advance the political reform process according to a precise plan and timetable".
The developments came as US defence officials told a US television network that "a good number" of unmanned US military and intelligence drones are operating in the skies over Syria to monitor Assad's government forces attacks against civilians and the armed opposition.
"The officials said this surveillance is not in preparation for US military intervention," NBC News reported on Friday.
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|William T. Hathaway|