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Syria troops move to crush protests

At least 11 people have been killed in a terrifying escalation of Syria's crackdown on dissent.

Thousands of soldiers backed by tanks poured into the city where the uprising began, opening fire indiscriminately on civilians, witnesses said.

Knife-wielding security agents did house-to-house sweeps in what activists called a campaign to intimidate protesters.

One witness said large numbers of troops arrived in the southern city of Daraa in busloads before dawn. Tanks later moved in as electricity, water and mobile phone service was cut.

"They have snipers firing on everybody who is moving," said a witness who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone. "They aren't discriminating. There are snipers on the mosque. They are firing at everybody."

A witness counted 11 bodies, with another 14 lying in the streets, apparently dead or gravely injured. All witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. Syria has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted access to trouble spots since the uprising began, making it nearly impossible to get independent assessments.

The offensive into Daraa appeared to be part of a new strategy for pre-emptive strikes against the opposition to President Bashar Assad's regime rather than reacting to marches and protests.

Other crackdowns and sweeping arrests were reported on the outskirts of the capital Damascus and the coastal town of Jableh. But the assault on Daraa - an impoverished city on the Jordanian border - was by far the biggest in scope and firepower.

More than 300 people have been killed across the country since the uprising began five weeks ago. But the relentless crackdowns have only served to embolden protesters, who started with calls for modest reforms but are now increasingly demanding Assad's downfall.

The sweep into Daraa, a city of about 300,000 people, sought to hit the opposition movement at one of its pillars. The protests against Assad began there in March and several political figures from the area have stepped down in protest at the violence in embarrassing defections from the regime.

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