The Syrian government ordered tanks and three helicopters into Daraa on Saturday, and heavy gunfire was heard in the city as security forces tried to crush a revolt against President Bashar Assad, residents said.
The Syrian army troops conquered a prominent mosque under control of residents, killing at least six people, eyewitnesses reported Saturday. Daraa resident Abdullah Abazeid said the Saturday morning operation lasted 90 minutes during which troops used tank shells and heavy machineguns.
In another development in the Daraa region, 138 members of Assad's ruling Baath Party resigned Saturday to protest the crackdown. Lists of those who resigned, with their party rank, identity card numbers and signatures, were sent to The Associated Press by activists.
It was not possible to independently verify the authenticity of the lists of the low-ranking members. Earlier this week, another 200 mostly low-level Baath party members in the Daraa province resigned over the deadly crackdown.
Syrian troops and tanks first swept into Daraa on Monday to quell pro-democracy protests against Assad that have spread across the country of 20 million, posing the biggest challenge to his rule and prompting Western powers to impose sanctions.
Daraa, a southern city of 120,000 people, is the cradle of a six-week-old uprising which started with demands for more freedom and an end to corruption. It developed into a movement to overthrow Assad following a violent crackdown by authorities.
Residents said they could hear heavy gunfire, mostly from Daraa's old quarter, which is situated on a hill near the Jordanian border and is mostly residential.
"Since dawn, we've been hearing a heavy exchange of gunfire that is echoing across the city and you do not know what's happening," Abu Tareq, a resident, told Reuters by phone."I saw more than 15 tanks that had entered from the Damascus highway heading in the direction of the Old City."
Syrian tank in Daraa (Photo: AFP)
It was not immediately clear whether tanks and mounted armoured carriers were shelling the city or agricultural land near the border.
Protesters call Al-Jazeera 'Jewish channel'
Another resident, Abu Ahmad, told Reuters he had heard tanks had stormed areas in the old city, where the Omari Mosque, which has been a focal point for protests, is located.
"It looks like they (security forces) want to finish their campaign today. From the new tank deployments, it looks as though they are intensifying their operations today."
Despite the heavy military deployments and mass arrests, demonstrators again took to the streets calling for Assad's overthrow on Friday.
Soldiers in Daraa killed 19 people on Friday when they fired on protesters who were trying to enter the city from nearby villages in a show of solidarity, a medical source said.
Syrian rights groups put Friday's death toll at 62, pushing the number of deaths since an uprising that has posed the biggest challenge to the Assad dynasty's four decades in power, to more than 500.
In other developments, hundreds of people protested before the offices of the Al-Jazeera network in Damascus over its coverage of the uprisings. Some of the protesters accused the network of having ties with Israel, calling it a "Jewish channel".
AP and Reuters contributed to this report
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