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Syria continues bloody crackdown

The besieged people of Daraa have braved sniper fire to pull the bullet-riddled bodies of their dead from the streets.

A day after a brutal government crackdown on the southern Syrian city heavy gunfire continued to reverberate.

The army onslaught was part of the relentless crackdown on anti-government protesters which since mid-March has killed more than 400 people.

President Bashar Assad's army, backed by tanks and snipers, launched a deadly raid before dawn on Monday on Daraa, where the uprising started more than a month ago, and the towns of Douma and Jableh. At least 22 people were killed in Daraa.

World leaders expressed concern at the mounting bloodshed, with the United States starting to draw up sanctions against Assad and the prime minister of neighbouring Turkey telephoning the Syrian leader to urge restraint.

The assault on Daraa appeared to be part of new strategy of crippling, pre-emptive action against any opposition to Assad, rather than reacting to demonstrations.

It took more than a day for residents to start taking many of the bodies off the streets, with rooftop snipers and army forces firing on those who dared to leave their homes.

Syria has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted access to trouble spots since the uprising began, making it almost impossible to verify the dramatic events shaking one of the most authoritarian, anti-Western regimes in the Arab world.

Meanwhile the United States told all its non-essential staff and the families of all its embassy workers to leave the country, but kept the facility open for limited services. It also advised all Americans to defer travel to Syria and advised those already in the country to leave.

Syria has a pivotal role in most of the flashpoint issues of the Middle East, from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran's widening influence. Instability has thrown into disarray the US push for engagement with Damascus, part of Washington's hopes to peel the country away from Hamas, Hezbollah and Tehran.

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