updated 6/5/2011 1:25:29 PM ET 2011-06-05T17:25:29

The death toll in a government security crackdown in two northern Syrian towns rose to 35 Sunday, human rights groups said. Exiled opposition figures said any dialogue now with President Bashar Assad's regime would be a joke.

Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the deaths in the town of Jisr al-Shughour and nearby Khan Sheikhoun included six policemen. The operation is part of a crackdown that began Saturday.

Human rights groups say more than 1,200 people have died in the brutal crackdown against anti-government protesters since March. Assad has coupled military operations with symbolic overtures toward the opposition, including an amnesty for many prisoners and a call for national dialogue.

The activists' reports could not be independently confirmed. The Syrian government has severely restricted the media and expelled foreign reporters, making it nearly impossible to independently verify events there.

Details of the operations in Jisr al-Shughour were also sketchy and attempts to reach residents of the town were unsuccessful, indicating that communications have been cut.

State-run news agency SANA said Sunday four policemen were killed and more than 20 wounded in the area when "armed terrorist" groups attacked government buildings and police stations.

It said the groups have been launching attacks against government buildings since Saturday, setting fire to a number of public and private buildings, cutting off roads and intimidating residents.

At a meeting of Syria's mostly expatriate opposition in Brussels Sunday, leaders said talks with the regime would be "a joke" as long as the violent crackdown continues.

Obeda Nahas, one of the representatives chosen at a two-day Conference of the National Coalition to Support the Syrian Revolution, said any opposition figures who talked to the regime now would not be taken seriously by the Syrian people.

"We can't sit at the table and have some killers with us at the table," he said at a news conference.

Nahas and other representatives renewed calls on foreign governments and the United Nations to increase political and legal steps against Assad's government.

"We want more pressure on this regime, because it doesn't seem to be listening to its own people," he told reporters.

Ausama Monajed, another participant, said opposition figures were working to put together legal cases against the Assad regime in federal courts in the U.S., several European courts and the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

In Syria, activist Abdul-Rahman and other activists said the Syrian military pulled back tanks from the outskirts of the tense central city of Hama and in southern villages.

A resident of the city, where least 65 anti-government protesters were killed Friday, said the tanks retreated from the outskirts of Hama overnight.

He said the situation in Hama remained "very tense." Residents were conducting a general strike in memory of those previously killed when security forces opened fire on anti-government protesters Friday.

"Most of the shops here are closed, people are grieving and worried," he said by telephone on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The deaths in Hama and reports of tanks headed there had caused new alarm. The city rose up against Assad's father in 1982, only to be crushed in a three-week bombing campaign that killed thousands. Memories of those days are still raw.

Activists on Sunday also said the army withdrew from the villages of Dael and Hirak near the city of Daraa where the uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime began in mid-March.

The military had been conducting military operations in the area for days.

The Local Coordination Committees, which helps organize and document the protests calling for an end to the Assad regime, said a total of 18 people died in Hirak and 12 in Dael since the start of the operations.


AP writer Gabriele Steinhauser contributed to this report from Brussels.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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