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Syrian forces line up another town

Elite army units have swept through a northern province of Syria, expanding a deadly operation to crush signs of dissent against President Bashar Assad.

In the south, tens of thousands took to the streets in the central city of Hama to show solidarity with victims of the military crackdown.

Hama was the site of a 1982 massacre by the government of Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, whose forces shelled the city to crush a Sunni Muslim uprising.

The crisis in Syria has drawn international condemnation and isolation. Human rights activists say more than 1,400 Syrians have died and some 10,000 have been detained as the government has struggled to put down the three-month-old national upheaval.

In recent days, Syrian tanks and the government's most loyal troops have been trying to extinguish any chance the anti-Assad resistance could gain a base for a wider armed rebellion. They have sealed off strategic areas in the north and east - including the town of Jisr al-Shughour, which was spinning out of government control before the military moved in on Sunday.

Other towns and villages in the region were on alert. Major General Riad Haddad, head of the military's political department, said tanks surrounding Maaret al-Numan, a town of 100,000, had not entered "yet" - suggesting they were readying an operation. Maaret al-Numan sits on the road linking Damascus with Syria's second-largest city, Aleppo.

Hundreds of people fled Maaret al-Numan on Wednesday, as security forces intermittently shelled the area and raided nearby villages, making arrests, said Syrian human rights activist Mustafa Osso. Troops might storm Maaret al-Numan "any minute", he said.

Gen Haddad also confirmed witness accounts that army units were surrounding the eastern town of al-Boukamal, near the Iraqi frontier, "to protect the borders".

As the crackdown grew bloodier, Syrian pro-democracy activists escalated their calls for political reforms to demands for the end of the Assad regime, dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

For its part, the government blames a foreign conspiracy for the unrest, saying religious extremists are behind it. Syrian information minister Adnan Mahmoud called on residents of Jisr al-Shughour to return, saying the area is now safe.

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