Party officials resign over Syrian crackdown

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Security forces tightened their grip on strategic towns and cities across Syria as demonstrators vowed another "day of rage" today to try to bring down the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.

Troops moved into a series of towns and cities despite criticism from more than 200 members of Syria's ruling Baath party who resigned in protest at the government's brutal crackdown against pro-reform demonstrators.

The unprecedented mass resignation came in response to the Syrian regime's deadly attacks against protesters since last Friday, and followed a failed attempt by the UN Security Council to co-ordinate a response to the escalating violence.

All the members came from the southern Deraa province and surrounding regions, which have experienced some of the worst bloodshed of recent days.

The members who resigned were not prominent or high-ranking officials, but the development is still significant in a country where apparatchiks have usually parroted the party line since the Baathists seized power in a 1963 coup.

"It's a significant step," one Damascus-based lawyer told The Independent. "If our regime falls then there will be a political earthquake."

The resignations came after another 30 officials quit from the trouble-hit north-western city of Baniyas on Wednesday. Last night residents remained under an army siege in the city of Deraa, where protests against the regime began on 16 March. Helicopters flew overhead during the day while security services continued raids on homes to arrest suspected activists.

Despite the crackdown, which rights groups say have left up to 500 people dead, activists vowed to protest again.