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Activists: At least 31 dead as Syrian troops storm eastern and central towns, fire on funeral
BEIRUT (AP) ' Two Syrian rights groups say government forces have killed at least 31 people in the latest phase of their crackdown on dissent and the toll for the day could rise to 69.
Sunday's casualties were mainly in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour and the central city of Houleh.
Abdul-Karim Rihawi, the Damascus-based chief of the Syrian Human Rights League, says at least 23 people were killed in Deir el-Zour and eight in Houleh.
Ammar Qurabi, who heads the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, says 42 people were killed in Deir el-Zour and 17 in Houleh. He says 10 people were shot dead in Idlib while taking part in a funeral.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
BEIRUT (AP) ' Syrian forces launched a pre-dawn raid on an eastern city in an intensified crackdown as the government tried to keep the uprising from escalating during the holy month of Ramadan. The assault, and another on a central town, killed at least 10 people.
An activist in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour told The Associated Press the military launched a pre-dawn raid, attacking from four sides and taking control of eight neighborhoods.
Abdul-Karim Rihawi, the Damascus-based chief of the Syrian Human Rights League, said at least 23 people were killed in Deir el-Zour. Rami Abdul-Rhaman, who heads the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said he can confirm four deaths in the city but the number is believed to be much higher.
"Human conditions in the city are very bad since it has been under siege for nine days," the activist said on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals. "There is lack of medicine, baby formula, food stuff and gasoline. The city is totally paralyzed."
The government's crackdown has left more than 1,700 dead and drawn strong international sanctions and condemnation against Assad's regime. Assad's regime disputes the toll and blames a foreign conspiracy for the unrest, saying gangs and religious extremists ' not true reform-seekers ' are behind it.
In Hama, an official at Hourani Hospital reported that eight newborns died in their incubators on Wednesday when electricity was cut in the city before troops began their attack, the observatory said. The group had no further details.
Authorities have imposed a media blackout on Hama and the reports could not be immediately confirmed. Electricity, Internet and phone lines have been cut for seven days, and residents have reported dwindling food and medical supplies amid frequent shelling and raids. Rights group say at least 100 people have been killed, while some estimates put the number as high as 250.
State-run news agency SANA said troops removed all barriers and roadblocks in Hama's main streets as it continues "to chase remains of terrorists" who took positions in two neighborhoods.
SANA said gunmen in the city had earlier killed 13 policemen whose bodies were removed Saturday from the Orantes River. An amateur video posted online by government supporters last week showed what it said were dead plainclothes policemen being thrown from a bridge into the river.
The military attacks also spread to the central town of Houleh in the Homs province, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of Hama and 340 kilometers (212 miles) east of Deir el-Zour.
The observatory said at least six people were killed when troops stormed Houleh, but the Local Coordination Committees, an activist group tracking the uprising, said seven people were killed in a bombing raid on the town. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the discrepancy.
Turkey, which borders Syria, said Sunday it would send its foreign minister to Damascus on Tuesday to deliver a strong message against the crackdown on the protesters. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country's patience was running thin and that Turkey could not remain a bystander to the violence.
Syria's reaction was quick. State-run TV quoted Assad's adviser, Buthaina Shaaban, as saying that Turkey's foreign minister "will hear stronger words because of Turkey's stance that did not condemn until now the brutal killings of civilians, members of military and police."
Assad said Syria will pursue reforms with "firm steps," adding that it is the state's job to deal with the outlaws who close roads and terrify people, SANA reported. SANA said Assad made his comment while receiving Lebanon's Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour.
Both Houleh and Deir el-Zour have witnessed intense protests against Assad since the uprising began in mid-March.
Deir el-Zour is the capital of an oil-rich province by the same name, but the region is among the country's poorest and was hit by drought in the past years. It is inhabited by Arab tribes that extend into Iraq, and Syrian authorities have said they thwarted attempts by Iraqis to smuggle arms from Iraq into Syria.
An amateur video posted online by activists showed what it said were parts of Deir el-Zour as heavy cracks of gunfire could be heard. Prayers could be also heard blaring from mosques loudspeakers.
Another video showed Syrian troops on a hill as they positioned an anti-aircraft heavy machine gun.
Gulf Arab countries broke their silence Saturday on the bloodshed, calling Saturday for an immediate end to the violence and for the implementation of "serious" reforms in Syria. In a statement posted on its website, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council expressed deep concern and regret for "the escalating violence in Syria and use of excess force."
Syria's state-run TV quoted an unnamed official as saying the GCC statement was ignoring the sabotage that armed groups are conducting.
Bassem Mroue can be reached at http://twitter.com/bmroue