At least 25 people were killed yesterday in shelling and shooting in Daraa, 100 kilometres south of Damascus, by thousands of Syrian troops backed by tanks and snipers, activists and witnesses said.
Washington, meanwhile, ordered non-essential staff of its Syrian embassy to leave as it also considered imposing "targeted sanctions'' on Damascus, which has been shaken by six weeks of protests against President Bashar al-Assad''s autocratic rule.
"The bullets continue against the people, but we are resisting," Syrian activist Abdullah Abazid told AFP by telephone today from Daraa near the Jordanian border.
Daraa is one of the main hubs of protests against Assad, who according to prominent activist Rami Abdel Rahman of London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has opted for a "military solution" to crush the demonstrations.
Yesterday's assault began at dawn with 3,000 to 5,000 army and security forces swooping on Daraa, with tanks taking up position in the town centre and snipers deploying on rooftops, activists said.
The operation came less than a week after Assad signed a decree to abolish nearly five decades of draconian emergency rule in a bid to pacify protesters demanding political reform and the fall of the regime.
Activist Abazid told AFP Syrian forces pounded Daraa with heavy artillery and that "at least 25 martyrs have fallen" yesterday.
A group of activists said in a statement "more than 25 people fell but no one could reach them because of the heavy shelling" and that only seven bodies were retrieved, including a father and his two sons.
The Syrian army disputed these reports, with a military official saying the troops entered Daraa "in response to calls for help from" citizens to rid them of "extremist terrorist groups" behind a spate of killings and sabotage.