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Middle East

Syria crackdown condemned

Syrian troops tightened their siege on the city of Hama today drawing a fresh wave of international condemnation against a regime defying the growing calls to end its crackdown on anti-government protesters.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with US-based Syrian democracy activists as the Obama administration considered new sanctions on Syria.

Congressional calls also mounted for action against President Bashar Assad's regime, as the death toll from two days of military assaults on civilians on Sunday and Monday neared 100.

Italy recalled its ambassador to Syria "in the face of the horrible repression against the civil population" by the government, which launched a new push against protesters as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began yesterday. It was the first European Union country to pull its ambassador, and the measure came a day after the EU tightened sanctions on Syria.

The mounting international outcry has had no apparent effect so far in Syria, an autocratic country that relies on Iran as a main ally in the region.

The top US military officer said Washington wants to pressure the Syrian regime. But he added there was no immediate prospect of a Libya-style military intervention.

"There's no indication whatsoever that the Americans, that we would get involved directly with respect to this," said Joint Chiefs chairman Admiral Mike Mullen.

And there was no sign that the regime was willing to back down.

There has been an intensified campaign since Sunday, apparently aimed at preventing protests from swelling during Ramadan, when Muslims throng mosques for special nightly prayers after breaking their daily, dawn-to-dusk fast. The gatherings could turn into large protests.

As expected, protests erupted last night across the country, with hundreds turning out in cities including Homs, Latakia, the Damascus suburbs and the eastern city of Deir el-Zour.

There were scattered protests in Hama, but heavy shelling kept most people inside. Hama has been the target of the recent operation because it has emerged as an opposition stronghold.

The city has a history of defiance to the Assad family 40-year dynasty in Syria. In 1982, Assad's father, Hafez Assad, ordered the military to quell a rebellion by Syrian members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood movement. The city was sealed off and bombs dropped from above smashed swaths of the city and killed between 10,000 and 25,000 people, rights groups say.

Activists said around 24 people were killed Monday and 74 on Sunday, most of them in Hama.

About 1,700 civilians have been killed since the largely peaceful protests against Assad's regime began, according to tallies by activists.