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Syrian crackdown kills 33 in towns

A government crackdown on two Syrian towns in the country's centre and south killed at least 33 people, including an 11-year-old girl shot dead by troops during a fierce shelling, activists have said.

Children have become a flashpoint issue in the uprising against the Syrian regime after video emerged of the mutilated and apparently tortured remains of a 13-year-old boy.

To blunt growing criticism, the government said it had ordered an investigation into the death of the teen who has become a new symbol of the revolt against President Basher Assad.

But the latest child's death, on Tuesday night, seemed certain to inflame tensions. Rights groups say more than 1,000 people have been killed in the crackdown nationwide, including 25 children. The opposition already has rejected the government's plan to release political prisoners, once a key demand but now one they say is little more than a ploy to buy time for Assad.

The Local Co-ordination Committees in Syria, which helps organise and document the country's protests, said 25 people were shot dead on Tuesday in the central town of Rastan, which has seen a major military clampdown in recent days.

In the south, Syrian troops shelled the town of Hirak with tanks and artillery, killing at least eight people on yesterday and today, including 11-year-old Malak Munir al-Qaddah, human rights activist Mustafa Osso said. Osso said scores of people were detained after government forces regained control of Hirak.

State-run Syrian TV said Interior Minister Mohammed Shaar ordered an investigation into 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib's death, which has led to widespread outrage after images of his body with what appeared to be marks of torture and gunshot wounds was shown on YouTube and Al-Jazeera TV.

Al-Jazeera did not air the whole video, but a copy posted by opposition on YouTube showed that the boy's penis was severed and his neck broken. The body, lying on a plastic sheet, appeared pink and the eyes were mottled with bruises and black marks.

Opposition groups blamed security forces for the boy's death.

The uprising has been the most serious challenge to the Assad family's 40-year rule. The government claims the revolt is the work of Islamic extremists and armed gangs.

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