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15 die in Syria protests crackdown

Syrian police have launched a relentless assault on a neighbourhood sheltering anti-government protesters, killing at least 15 in an operation that lasted nearly 24 hours.

At least six were killed in a pre-dawn attack on the al-Omari mosque in the southern agricultural city of Daraa, where protesters have taken to the streets in calls for reforms and political freedoms, witnesses said.

An activist said police shot another three people protesting in its Roman-era city centre after dusk. Six more bodies were found later in the day.

Inspired by the wave of pro-democracy protests around the region, the uprising in Daraa and at least four nearby villages has become the biggest domestic challenge since the 1970s to the Syrian government, one of the most repressive in the Middle East.

Security forces have responded with water cannon, tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. The total death toll now stands at 22.

As the casualties mounted, people from the nearby villages of Inkhil, Jasim, Khirbet Ghazaleh and al-Harrah tried to march on Daraa but security forces opened fire as they approached, the activist said. It was not immediately clear if there were more deaths or injuries.

Democracy activists used social-networking sites to call for massive demonstrations across the country on Friday, a day they dubbed "Dignity Friday".

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the violence against peaceful demonstrators and called for "a transparent investigation into the killings" and for those responsible to be held accountable, said UN spokesman Martin Nesirky.

"He reminds the Syrian government of its obligation to protect civilians, and of its responsibility to address the legitimate aspirations of its people through a purposeful dialogue and reforms," said Mr Nesirky.

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