Syria faces US pressure to stop crackdow


The US has renewed calls on Syria to halt its crackdown on anti-government protests.

Damascus says its forces are pursuing rebels through the countryside around Jisr al-Shughour, after consolidating control over the northern town.

Witnesses say troops are pursuing a "scorched earth" strategy in the area, destroying houses and crops.

The government insists it is tackling armed groups which it says have been targeting security forces.

Condemning the crackdown, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: "President [Bashar al-]Assad needs to engage in political dialogue. A transition needs to take place. If President Assad does not lead that transition, then he should step aside," he told reporters.

"What happened there over the weekend and what continues to occur is absolutely revolting, and we condemn these barbaric acts in the strongest possible terms," State Department spokesman Mark Toner also said.

Refugees and activists still inside Syria said troops and tanks were cutting off and attacking villages to the east and north of Jisr al-Shughour, leaving a trail of devastation in their wake.

They are also reported to be heading towards the town of Maarat al-Numan, to the south-east, where the state media had reported attacks on government buildings and security headquarters in recent days.

As demonstrations against the regime continue to break out, often at night, in many parts of the country, activists report that several parts of the coastal city of Latakia have been sealed off by troops, reports the BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut.

Soldiers are also reported to have been deployed at Deir az-Zor, in the east, and in some suburbs of Damascus, where protests continue.On Sunday, troops were confronted by other soldiers trying to defend people in Jisr al-Shughour, according to Syrian refugees who have crossed into Turkey.

Elements from one tank division had even taken up positions by bridges leading into the town in a bid to defend it, they said.

"There is now a split within the army and you have a group who are trying to protect the civilians," one refugee told the AFP news agency.

The government says it has been trying to restore order after 120 security personnel were killed in Jisr al-Shughour last week.

Residents say they died after a mutiny and fighting between security forces.

Syria has prevented foreign journalists, including those from the BBC, from entering the country, making it difficult to independently verify reports from there.

'Miserable' conditions
Hundreds of Syrians have been massing on the border with Turkey, preparing to cross over if the army advances.

Turkey has already taken in thousands of refugees.

The BBC's Jonathan Head on the Turkish-Syrian border says these people have been badly frightened and do not want to return home until the Assad regime falls.

They have been in the border area for several days without proper shelter or food, he adds.

In central Syria, people have told BBC Arabic that a protest has taken off in the city of Hama and is heading to the government headquarters in the city.

About 2,000 people are participating in the march, organised by lawyers' and engineers' associations.

This is the first such protest called for by the professional groups since the beginning of the protests in Syria.

And according to sources close to the Arab League, some member states have introduced a draft resolution to suspend Syria's participation in meetings of the group's council, in protest at the crackdown.

Protests against President Assad, who succeeded his father Hafez in 2000, began in mid-March.

Human rights groups say at least 1,300 people have been killed in the crackdown.

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