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Assad rejects calls to step down

Syria has rejected US and European calls for President Bashar Assad to step down, saying they revealed the "face of the conspiracy" targeting Damascus for its key role in the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

A front-page editorial in the government-owned newspaper Al-Thawra, was the first official government response to Thursday's demand by the US and its European allies that Assad resign because of the government's bloody crackdown on protesters.

Assad has come under mounting criticism for his assault on a five-month-old uprising. Human rights groups and witnesses accuse Syrian troops of firing on largely unarmed protesters and say more than 2,000 people have been killed since mid-March.

Activists have raised the death toll from Friday's protests to at least 29, most of them in the central province of Homs where security forces are said to be conducting raids in some neighbourhoods.

Reinforcements were being sent to Homs, Syria's third-largest city and the site of intense anti-regime protests, according to the Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and The Local Co-ordination Committees, an activist group.

"Shooting has not stopped since last night," Abdul-Rahman said, quoting residents.

The security operations in Homs and the coastal city of Latakia come despite promises by Assad that the military and police operations against the uprising are over.

Friday's shootings, which came as thousands poured into the streets across Syria, suggest the autocratic leader is either unwilling to stop the violence - or not fully in control of his own regime.

Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, is facing the most serious international isolation of his rule after US and European calls for him to leave.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama made his first explicit call for Assad to step down. A day later, European Union officials said the bloc's 27 member states were considering more economic sanctions against Syria, including an embargo on oil, which could significantly slash the Damascus government's revenues.

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