Syria sends more troops to besieged southern city

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Military reinforcements poured into the besieged southern Syrian town of Daraa today, a day after President Bashar Assad unleashed deadly force to crush a months-old revolt, killing at least 65 people.

Four tanks, 20 armoured personnel carriers and a military ambulance rumbled into Daraa early in the morning, a resident told the Associated Press.

Daraa, which is at the heart of a six-week-old uprising against the government, has been under siege since Monday when the government first sent in tanks to crush the daily demonstrations.

The head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said 65 people were killed yesterday, with 36 deaths in Daraa province, 27 in the central Homs region, one in Latakia and another in the Damascus countryside. Total civilian deaths since the uprising began has reached 535, he said.

The latest deaths came as the US slapped three top officials in Mr Assad's regime - including his brother - with sanctions and nations agreed to launch a UN-led investigation of Syria's crackdown.

An activist said authorities have asked relatives of some of those killed yesterday to hold small funerals attended by family members only. Similar orders were given last week but most people did not abide by them, the activist added.

The move appeared to be an attempt by authorities to avoid more bloodshed, with funerals in the past weeks turned into demonstrations.

A devastating picture is emerging of Daraa - which has been without electricity, water and telephones since Monday - as residents flee across the border. The uprising began in Daraa in mid-March, sparked by the arrest of teenagers who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall.

Sounds of sporadic gunfire were heard in the city today, mainly from the city centre area, the witness said.

"It's getting harder and harder to know what's happening. I can't go outside. If I put my foot outside, they will shoot me," he said. He added that snipers were shooting at people from high buildings.

He said that, since Monday, troops have been allowing women to go out to buy bread, but today they stopped them.

In the coastal city of Banias, a resident said army forces which set positions in the city centre earlier this month withdrew late yesterday, but it was unclear why.

Large demonstrations were reported yesterday in the capital, Damascus, the central city of Homs, the coastal cities of Banias and Latakia, the northern cities of Raqqa and Hama, and the north-eastern town of Qamishli near the Turkish border.

Syrian TV said military and police forces came under attack by "armed terrorists" in Daraa and Homs, killing four soldiers and three police officers. Two soldiers were captured but were later freed by the army, state TV said. The station also said one of its cameramen was injured in Latakia by an armed gang.

Meanwhile, diplomats said the UN's nuclear watchdog agency is setting the stage for potential UN Security Council action on Syria as it prepares a report assessing that a Syrian target bombed by Israeli warplanes in 2007 was likely a secretly built nuclear reactor meant to produce plutonium.

Also yesterday, nations agreed to launch a UN-led investigation of Syria's crackdown, demanding that Damascus halt the violence, release political prisoners and lift media restrictions.

The Geneva-based Human Rights Council said it would ask the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to send a mission to investigate "all alleged violations of international human rights law and to establish the facts and circumstances of such violations and of the crimes perpetrated".

UN officials said the killings may include crimes against humanity.