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'52 killed' in Syria crackdown

More than 50 people have been reported killed as Syrian forces intensified their crackdown on the eastern city of Deir el-Zour.

The assault and similar operations in at least two other towns killed at least 52 people, according to human rights groups, and the toll looked likely to rise.

The worst violence was in Deir el-Zour, where troops stepped up a siege that had already been going on for days.

At least 42 people were killed in a raid on the city that began before dawn, said Abdul-Karim Rihawi, the Damascus-based chief of the Syrian Human Rights League and Ammar Qurabi, who heads the National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria.

"Humanitarian conditions in the city are very bad because it has been under siege for nine days," one activist in Deir el-Zour said.

"There is lack of medicine, baby formula, food and gasoline. The city is totally paralysed."

The attack on Deir el-Zour is part of the latest phase of the government crackdown that began a week ago, just before the start of the holy month of Ramadan when many Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, then eat festive meals and gather in mosques for special nightly prayers.

The government has been trying to prevent the large mosque gatherings from turning into a new wave of anti-government protests, like those that have been sweeping the country since mid-March.

The central city of Hama had been the focus of the crackdown for most of the week, though Deir el-Zour has also been under siege. In Hama, an official at Hourani Hospital reported that eight newborns died in their incubators when electricity was cut in the city, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Authorities have imposed a media blackout on Hama and the reports could not be immediately confirmed.

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