msnbc.com news services
updated 6/2/2011 6:24:08 PM ET 2011-06-02T22:24:08

Electricity, phone lines and then the water supply were cut off in a restive area of Syria that is a new center for protests against President Bashar Assad, and activists said 15 people died in the sixth day of sustained government attacks Thursday.

What started as street demonstrations calling for reforms has evolved into demands for Assad's ouster in the face of a violent crackdown, especially in Syria's south and agricultural center, where the challenge to his family's 40-year-rule is seen as strongest. In the city of Rastan on Thursday, a resident who fled said troops swept through making arrests.

"We have become refugees in our own country," said the Rastan resident, who said he slept in the woods to avoid capture. He was reached by telephone and spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. "My family and sisters are still there, and I don't know how they are doing."

Syria's opposition, fragmented by years of sectarian and ideological tensions, made tentative steps to organize and show an international face, calling on Assad to step down to allow for free elections at the end of a two-day conference in Turkey.

Murhaf Jouejati, a political science professor at George Washington University who specializes in Syria, said the conference was an attempt to "put together a vision of what a post-Assad Syria will look like."

But the call issued by participants consisting mostly of Syrian exiles is unlikely to resonate soon beyond the conference. It also highlighted internal divisions that have long been exploited by the government: Several prominent figures stayed away following disputes about the agenda and timing.

"This is about trying to fix up the opposition for the outside world," said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Video: Syrian crackdown now includes children (on this page)

Within Syria, the government's crackdown has been deadly and unrelenting, even if it has not stopped the daily protests that swell into the thousands on Fridays. Activists say more than 1,100 Syrians have died and more than 10,000 have been detained.

Assad's government got a strong signal of support on Thursday from Russia, a close ally. In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to have Russia, China and some hesitant Arab countries in mind as she said nations slow to denounce the Syrian crackdown should get on what she called "the right side of history." She lamented that international disunity was limiting U.S. options for a response.

Details coming out of Syria are sketchy because the government has severely restricted the media and expelled foreign reporters, making it nearly impossible to independently verify accounts coming out of the country.

But the resident said troops pounded the area that has been largely cut off from outside contact for six days with artillery and gunfire, bombing the town's water supply as well as a mosque and a sports complex.

Activists said 15 people were killed, including two brothers and a 4-year-old girl. The nearby towns of Talbiseh and Teir Maaleh, which like Rastan have seen persistent protests, have also come under attack.

Thursday's deaths bring the total killed in Rastan and nearby Talbiseh to 72 since the onslaught began.

"There have been rare instances of people who have seen their parents, wives or children being killed, (people) taking their personal weapons and trying to resist. But they were smothered by the overwhelming and unjustifiable force being used by the authorities," Ammar Qurabi, head of the Syrian Organization for Human Rights, told Reuters at the meeting in Turkey.

Many of the Syrian army's officers and cadres, including former defense minister Mustafa Tlass, are from Rastan, an agricultural and industrial town with a population of about 100,000.

Landis said the revolt's spread to the area was in many ways unsurprising, given years of "terrible drought, not enough farmland, terrible jobs, no prospects. Life just looks bleak if you're from one of these places."

The Syrian government on Wednesday and Thursday freed hundreds of political prisoners in an amnesty and the president set up a committee for national dialogue in an effort to end the 10-week uprising, but concessions that would have been unimaginable only months ago were flatly rejected by protesters.

In Antalya, Turkey, members of the opposition dismissed Assad's overtures and called for his immediate departure.

"The delegates have committed to the demands of the Syrian people to bring down the regime and support the people's revolution for freedom and dignity," said a communique issued by 300 opposition figures.

"The one who needs the amnesty is the killer," said Molham Aldrobi, a representative of Syria's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood who attended the conference.

Mohammad Abdullah, an exiled Syrian journalist, told The Associated Press by phone from Antalya that the meeting's closing statement urged Assad to hand power to his vice president and hold free parliamentary and presidential elections within a year.

The Syrian opposition called for nationwide demonstrations on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, to commemorate the nearly 30 children killed in the uprising.

The images of children who activists say were killed during the government crackdown have circulating widely among Syrians on YouTube, Facebook and opposition websites, stoking even more fury against a regime the opposition says has lost all legitimacy.

The death of Hamza al-Khatib, a 13-year-old boy who rights groups say was tortured and killed in custody , has drawn particular outrage around the world and spurred more protests in Syria. His mutilated body was returned to his family weeks after he disappeared.

Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said on Wednesday he had expanded a list of members of Assad's circle subject to sanctions and urged the U.N. Security Council to consider referring the Syrian leader to the International Criminal Court.

"When you see such large-scale, directed action by a head of government against his own civilian population, including the murder of a 13-year-old boy and his torture, then the deepest questions arise in the minds of the people of the world as to whether any claims of legitimacy remains," Rudd said.

U.S. officials have not definitely said the boy was tortured."The torture scenario is still entirely plausible notwithstanding some of the other reports out there," a U.S. official told NBC News. "But I don't have definitive confirmation one way or the other at this point."Syrian authorities deny Hamza was tortured, saying he was killed at a demonstration in which armed gangs shot at guards.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Syrian crackdown now includes children

  1. Closed captioning of: Syrian crackdown now includes children

    >>> chief foreign correspondent richard engel is in tripoli. the targeting ? of children has been, you know, appalling and brought more world attention to this outrageous situation in syria . what is the latest that you're hearing from your listening post ?

    >> reporter: well, it is almost hard to know where to start. if we start in syria , there has been more violence today. really destabilizing violence. and emotional scenes partly because so many children have been killed. you mentioned that 11-year-old girl. today there is a funeral for a 13-year-old boy. and he was buried and there were large crowds there to support his family. but also to express anger. the body of this boy has been circulated around the internet. it apparently shows severe torture at the hands of syrian government officials . the boy was shot through both arms, shot through both legs, had his genitals cut off and just a horrific image circulating online. and it has become a rallying cry for people and today he was finally buried. so the protests are no means over in syria . and every time there is another child in -- who is killed or when the body is circulated online, it just adds more fuel to the fire , andrea.

    >> and just heart breaking, horrific as you point out. we had word from the white house today that john brennan , the counterterrorism official from the white house , the nsc, is traveling in the region. he's going to sudan, saudi arabia , to the uae and we had word from hillary clinton , secretary of state today, about the continued unrest in yemen . let me play that and ask you about it on the other side.

    >> we cannot expect this conflict to end unless president saleh and his government move out of the way to permit the opposition and civil society to begin a transition to political and economic ? reform.

    >> of course, the united states has been saying a lot of things about yemen . but there has been no impact on president saleh . what is the latest from yemen ?

    >> well, the situation in yemen has completely deteriorated. the united states , as you know, was involved in trying to negotiate a deal for president saleh to leave power. saudi arabia was also involved. that deal has completely broken down and now there is heavy fighting on the streets of sana and has been going on for the last 24 hours or so between government forces and i should say those are still the government forces that are loyal and military units that remain loyal because there have been major divisions within the yemeni forces, but the ones that are still loyal are now fighting against a group of tribes that are well armed, that are motivated, and have decided to try and drive out saleh by force. and those tribesmen who are led particularly by akmar, one of the tribal leaders in that country, are well armed and numerous. they're one of the most powerful organizations in the society. we have the protesters calling on the government to step down. we have the united states and that click you just played saying that the government needs to move aside. and now this powerful faction of tribal leaders taking up arms to try and push the president of yemen out of power.

    >> and richard, while you've been on the air with us, reuters is reporting a large explosion outside of a hotel in benghazi. i want to give you a chance to go off and do some reporting and we don't know any details about this at all except that it is located in benghazi and it is a large hotel and an explosion. so i know we'll see more from you throughout the day on "nbc nightly news."

    >> we'll be looking into that, thank you.

    >> thank you, richard.

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