http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20110425/wl_nm/us_syria

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Suleiman al-Khalidi Khaled Yacoub Oweis And Suleiman Al-khalidi 1 hr 17 mins ago

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian troops and tanks stormed Deraa on Monday, residents said, seeking to crush resistance in the city where a month-long uprising against the autocratic 11-year rule of President Bashar al-Assad first erupted.

A witness told Reuters he saw bodies in the street after hundreds of soldiers in armored vehicles poured into Deraa, a few miles from Syria’s southern border with Jordan which officials said was sealed off on Monday.

A leading human rights campaigner said security forces, which also swept into the restive Damascus suburb of Douma, were waging “a savage war designed to annihilate Syria’s democrats.”

Rights groups say security forces have killed more than 350 civilians since unrest broke out in Deraa on March 18. A third of the victims were shot in the past three days as the scale and breadth of a popular revolt against Assad grew.

Assad lifted Syria’s 48-year state of emergency on Thursday but activists say the violence the following day, when 100 people were killed during protests across the country, showed he was not serious about addressing calls for political freedom.

Monday appeared to be the first time the authorities have sent tanks into population centers since the protests began.

The raids on Deraa and Douma suggested that Assad, who assumed power when his father died in 2000 after ruling Syria with an iron fist for 30 years, was determined to crush the opposition by force.

The witness in Deraa told Reuters he could see bodies lying in a main street near the Omari mosque after eight tanks and two armored vehicles deployed in the old quarter of the city.

“People are taking cover in homes. I could see two bodies near the mosque and no one was able to go out and drag them away,” the witness said.

Snipers were posted on government buildings, and security forces in army fatigues had been shooting at random at houses since the tanks moved in just after dawn prayers.

Tanks at the main entry points to Deraa also shelled targets in the city, a resident named Mohsen told Al Jazeera, which showed a cloud of black smoke hanging over buildings. “People can’t move from one street to another because of the shelling.”

Two residents told Jazeera they had seen soldiers firing on their own side, apparently to allow people to drag the wounded from the street. The reports could not be confirmed.

Foreign journalists have mostly been expelled from the country, making it impossible to verify the situation on the ground. Grisly footage posted on the Internet by demonstrators in recent days appears to show troops firing on unarmed crowds. Officials have blamed armed groups for the violence.

“OUTRAGEOUS VIOLENCE”

Assad has deepened his father Hafez al-Assad’s alliance with Iran, clawed back influence in Lebanon and backed Hezbollah and Hamas militants, but he has kept Syria’s front line with Israel quiet and held indirect peace talks with the Jewish state.

Western criticism of the crackdown was initially muted, partly because of fears that a collapse of his minority Alawite rule in the majority Sunni country might lead to sectarian conflict. But on Friday President Barack Obama urged Assad to stop the “outrageous use of violence to quell protests.”

Suhair al-Attasi, a leading Syrian human rights campaigner, said authorities had launched “a savage war designed to annihilate Syria’s democrats.

“President Assad’s intentions have been clear since he came out publicly saying he is ‘prepared for war’,” Atassi said, referring to a March 31 speech to parliament.

Writers from all Syria’s main sects issued a declaration denouncing the crackdown and urging intellectuals “who have not broken the barrier of fear to make a clear stand.

“We condemn the violent, oppressive practices of the Syrian regime against the protesters and mourn the martyrs of the uprising,” said Monday’s declaration, signed by 102 writers and journalists, in Syria and in exile.

As well as the crackdown in Deraa and Douma, activists said troops and gunmen loyal to Assad had shot dead at least 13 civilians since they swept into the Mediterranean town of Jabla on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said.

The forces deployed in the old Sunni quarter of Jabla after a pro-democracy protest and a warning by the governor of the province against any public assembly, rights campaigners said.

A wave of arrests since Friday’s demonstrations continued on Monday, the SOHR said, saying more people had been detained in the provinces of Idlib, Deir al-Zor and Raqqa.

Activists said they feared Assad’s forces also were preparing for an attack on the town of Nawa, north of Deraa, after reports of bulldozers and military vehicles heading there. Thousands of people called for the overthrow of Assad on Sunday at a funeral in Nawa for protesters killed by security forces.

“Long live Syria. Down with Bashar!” mourners chanted at the funeral. “Leave, leave! The people want the overthrow of the regime.”

(Additional reporting by Sami Aboudi in Cairo and Mahmoud Habboush in Dubai; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Paul Taylor)

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