Assad's forces kill 55 protesters in Syria, including 32 in Deraa

In response to the continued violence, US President Barack Obama last night ordered new sanctions against Syria¿s intelligence agency and two relatives of President Bashar al Assad, US officials said.

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DAMASCUS // Syrian security forces killed at least 55 protesters across the country yesterday, activists said, as an emergency UN Human Rights Council session met to condemn Damascus for using deadly force against peaceful civilian demonstrators.

In the day's single bloodiest incident, at least 32 unarmed villagers were shot dead while trying to break the military blockade of Deraa, the city that has been the epicentre of the rebellion, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Agence France-Presse.

In response to the continued violence, US President Barack Obama last night ordered new sanctions against Syria's intelligence agency and two relatives of President Bashar al Assad, US officials said.

Yesterday's killings came as thousands of anti-government protesters once again took to the streets in defiance of a military crackdown and a ban on public demonstrations. Members of Syria's security forces were also killed yesterday, according to the government.

Three officers died in Homs, the country's third-largest city and four soldiers were killed in Deraa, where another two were captured, according to state media. AFP reported that at least 15 civilians were killed in Homs.

Syrian authorities insist they are now fighting a militant Islamic insurrection, an assertion that was met with scepticism at an emergency meeting of the UN Human Rights Council yesterday in Geneva.

The 47-member council condemned Damascus for its use of disproportionate force against protesters.

The UN right council also voted to launch its own investigation into killings by the authorities, as well as probing other allegations of human rights abuses.

Since an anti-government uprising began last month, more than 500 civilians have been killed in crackdowns by the government, human rights monitors say, with the UN yesterday putting the number of wounded at more than 1,800.

Deraa, 100 kilometres south of Damascus, yesterday remained the focal point of the uprising.

Thousands of people from villages surrounding the besieged city tried to march through a military cordon of heavily armed infantry and tanks. Although they failed to enter the city itself, the symbolism of the attempt was powerful.

"The authorities wanted to end this opposition through force, but the people marched which means Deraa isn't defeated and this is not over," said a supporter of the protesters in Damascus.

As the rallies and bloodshed continued, however, there were signs of protest fatigue. Some of those in favour of the demonstrations said they are starting to fear that opposition activists have become too reckless in pushing their agenda for sweeping political change.

"We've seen enough blood," said a 50-year-old Syrian who, until now, has been cheering on the protesters. "Now there must be a pause in the demonstrations for two weeks, to test if the president really is going to make reforms.

"If things keep going as they are, it will be a civil war. Most of the people do not want that, it will benefit no one," he said.

In the face of an unprecedented challenge to his 11-year rule - and the very structure of Syria's one-party state - Mr Assad has vowed to undertake a raft of reforms but has simultaneously tried to stop protests through tightened security measures.

Mr Assad was not among those targeted by the new US sanctions, which will include asset freezes and bans on US business dealings, but he could be named later if violence by government forces against pro-democracy protesters continues, Obama administration officials said.

The security clampdown escalated this week when a powerful military force swept into Deraa, sealing the area off. Residents and human rights groups say soldiers have since used artillery and snipers to indiscriminately kill civilians there, preventing them from access to medical treatment, food and water.

The siege conditions, however, failed to break Friday's now routinely observed show of dissent. According to activists, protesters

demonstrated yesterday in key areas, including 10,000 people in Banias, and thousands more in Idleb, Latakia, Homs, Hama and Raqqa.

There was also a protest in Midan, in the heart of Damascus, which was broken up by security forces using tear gas, witnesses said. Dozens of plain clothes security officers, armed with sticks, were policing the area, backed by snipers on the roofs of surrounding tower blocks.

In addition, combat troops were deployed on the streets of the Syrian capital yesterday for the first time since the uprising started. Soldiers in full combat gear were positioned on Abbaseen square, with bus loads of plainclothes security forces lining the roads nearby, ready for quick deployment.

Abbaseen square is seen as a strategic location, both by the authorities and protesters. For weeks, demonstrators from rebelling northern Damascus suburbs have tried to march to the square to gain a permanent foothold in the capital. The authorities have, so far, stopped them.

In Hajar Aswad, a tough, working class suburb in southern Damascus where at least seven civilians were killed last week, according to residents, all was quiet yesterday. Plainclothes security officers in more than a dozen buses - usually used for public transport - were waiting in the centre of the neighbourhood to face off with any demonstrators.

"People probably looked at that force and decided not to go out," said one Syrian who, like many residents of Hajar Aswad, is a refugee from the occupied Golan Heights. "The people don't want to fight in the streets and anyway, there always tomorrow. The government can't leave the security in those buses all week. When they go, the protesters will come back."