Despite the sanctions, Assad sends troops into the villages

The death toll from the insurrection, which began in mid-March after protests in Deraa, now stands at 757, with 9,000 people who have been arrested still in custody

The Syrian regime continued its brutal wave of repression yesterday as it sent troops into southern villages around the trouble-hit city of Deraa in spite of EU sanctions announced earlier this week, which targeted top Baathist officials.

Shooting was heard as the army moved in on the five villages in the early hours of yesterday, though no casualties were reported.

Elsewhere a number of suburbs around Damascus, where many middle-class families live, remained under a tight siege operated by the military and security services.

Activists said heavy gunfire was heard in Moadamiyah, a small town about 10 miles west of the capital, while there were reports of numerous house raids in nearby Qatana. Tanks were also seen heading towards the central Syrian cities of Homs and Hama, as the regime of President Bashar al-Assad showed no sign of backing down in the face of mounting protests.

"Any area where there are demonstrations, the government is sending the army," the human rights activist Mustafa Osso told Associated Press.

On Monday there was a small rally in central Damascus, which until now has been relatively trouble-free. Protesters chanted "Stop the siege on our cities", but they were soon stopped by the security services who bundled some demonstrators into a van.

On Monday the EU placed 13 leading Syrian officials on its sanctions list – including a brother of the President. The measures, which include travel bans, asset freezes and an arms embargo, were designed to punish the government for its violent repression of pro-reform protesters – but they fell short of French calls to include the President himself.

The sanctions come as one Syrian human rights group said the death toll from the insurrection, which began to gather momentum in mid-March after protests in Deraa, now stood at 757. The National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria also said 9,000 people who had been arrested were still in custody. The Independent has also learned that there are now plans by prominent activists inside and outside Syria to issue a declaration within a matter of weeks to establish what has been described as a "shadow government".

A document, being circulated among academics, religious leaders and opposition political figures, is calling for the creation of a Syrian "national council" to devise a blueprint for a post-Baathist state.

Ausama Monajed, a London-based spokesman for the National Initiative for Change, an opposition umbrella group, said: "We plan to get hundreds of people to sign the document. It is a vision for the transitional period."

According to Wissam Tarif, executive of the Spain-based Syrian rights organisation Insan, the declaration would provide a "road map" for the kind of political system which might follow the regime of Bashar al-Assad, who has been in power since 2000 and who took control after his father died following 30 years in power.

"What they are doing is very important," he said. "They are trying to figure out what might happen next."

Activists have not decided where the declaration will be made, but it is likely to happen in a neighbour of Syria, such as Turkey or Jordan.

The unrest was triggered by the arrests of teenagers caught scrawling anti-government graffiti in Deraa in mid-March.

How the death toll soared

18 March First deaths at demonstrations as security forces kill three protesters in Deraa.

8 April Wider protests break out across Syria, with 22 more people reported killed in Deraa.

21 April Assad lifts emergency rule in belated attempt to calm protests, with death toll estimated to be at least 200.

22 April Gunmen kill at least 100 protesters in one day, rights group says.

25 April Troops and tanks pour into Deraa, killing more than 20.

9 May Assad sends in tanks to the city of Homs as the latest reported death toll hits 757.

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