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Syrian strikers defy Assad's regime

Syrians have closed businesses across the country in a show of civil disobedience against the regime as a new and fierce round of clashes between troops and army defectors spread.

Amid the violence, president Bashar Assad's regime pushed ahead with municipal elections that the opposition has dismissed as a meaningless concession that falls far short of their demands for Assad to give up power.

A call by opposition activists for an open-ended general strike starting from Sunday, if widely heeded, could place added economic pressure on Assad's regime at a time when it is already struggling with growing international sanctions and isolation.

A resident of Homs, the epicentre of the uprising, said only shops selling essential goods were open.

The opposition wants the strike to remain in force until the regime pulls the army out of cities and releases thousands of detainees. And there were signs it was being widely observed in particular in areas that are centres of anti-government protest. Most shops and schools were shut in Homs and parts of the southern province of Daraa and the north-western region of Idlib near the border with Turkey, activists said.

Assad has spent years trying to open up Syria's economy, which helped boost a new and vibrant merchant class even as the regime's political trappings remained unchanged. If the economy continues to collapse, Assad could find himself with few allies inside the country.

Still Assad has refused to buckle under Arab and international pressure to step down and has shown no sign of easing his crackdown. Economic sanctions, however, could chip away at the regime in the long-run and erode his vital support base in the business community.

Activists said a new round of fierce clashes between Syrian troops and army defectors began on Sunday with a major battle in the south and spread to new areas, raising fears the conflict is spiralling toward civil war.

The nine-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad has grown increasingly violent as defecting soldiers fight back against the army and once-peaceful protesters take up arms to protect themselves against the military assault.

The UN says more than 4,000 people have been killed since March. The revolt has raised concerns of a regional conflagration, given Syria's strategic role in the Middle East with alliances in Iran and with the Shiite militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon

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