msnbc.com news services
updated 11/15/2011 1:56:07 PM ET 2011-11-15T18:56:07

At least 69 people were killed in southern Syria on Monday, most of them in clashes between army deserters and troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, activists said on Tuesday.

The violence came as Syria faces growing international isolation following the Arab League's decision to suspend its membership in response to Assad's crackdown on eight months of protests calling for his overthrow.

The United States hopes the Arab League will use its next meeting on Wednesday to send a forceful message to al-Assad to halt violence against his own people, the State Department said.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. hopes for more follow-up when Arab foreign ministers meet in Morocco on Wednesday.

"We look for the Arab League tomorrow to again send a forceful message to Assad that he needs to allow for a democratic transition to take place and end the violence against his people," Toner told a news briefing on Tuesday.

On Monday, King Abdullah of Jordan also called on Assad to step down for the good of his country, becoming the first Arab leader to make such a call publicly. Assad's family has ruled Syria for four decades.

Story: Jordan's king urges Syria's Assad to step down

Hundreds of people have been killed so far this month, making it one of the bloodiest periods of the Syrian protests, inspired by uprisings which have overthrown leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

The Syrian Organization for Human Rights said 34 soldiers and members of Syrian security forces were killed in clashes with suspected army deserters who attacked military vehicles in the southern province on Monday.

Video footage broadcast by Al-Jazeera television showed what appeared to be a tank engulfed in flames, alongside other burning vehicles.

Interactive: Young and restless: Demographics fuel Mideast protests (on this page)

The U.N. estimates the regime's military crackdown on dissent has killed 3,500 people in the past eight months. 

The Syrian government has prevented independent reporting and barred most foreign journalists. Details gathered by activist groups and witnesses are key channels of information.

Alongside street protests, which rights groups say have been mainly peaceful, an increasingly forceful armed insurgency has targeted Assad's military and security forces. Authorities blame these armed groups for the violence, saying at least 1,100 soldiers and police have been killed since the uprising broke out in March. 

A resident near the town of Khirbet Ghazaleh in Daraa province said he heard more than four hours of intense gunfire. He asked that his name not be used for fear of government reprisals.

Another witness, who is an activist in the area, said he counted the bodies of 12 people, believed to be civilians killed by security forces' fire.

"I saw two army armored personnel carriers, totally burnt," he told The Associated Press by telephone. He also asked for anonymity out of fear for his safety.

The violence appeared focused in the southern province of Daraa.

Image: King Abdullah II, Bashar Assad
Yousef Allan  /  AP, file
King Abdullah II of Jordan, left, receives Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, on his arrival in Amman in March, 2009.

Syria's crackdown on an 8-month-old uprising has brought international condemnation, but Damascus generally has been spared broad reproach in the Arab world. That changed Saturday, with a near-unanimous vote by the 22-member Arab League to suspend Syria.

Earlier Monday, Syria struck back at its international critics, branding an Arab League decision to suspend its membership as "shameful and malicious" and accusing other Arabs of conspiring with the West to undermine the regime.

The sharp rebuke suggests Damascus fears the United States and its allies might use the rare Arab consensus to press for tougher sanctions at the United Nations.

Assad says extremists pushing a foreign agenda to destabilize Syria are behind the unrest, not true reform-seekers aiming to open the country's autocratic political system.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Syria facing growing pressure to end crackdown

  1. Transcript of: Syria facing growing pressure to end crackdown

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: We turn overseas now to Syria . An important update tonight on a situation that could be nearing a breaking point. The last 24 hours have been the worst, the bloodiest, the most violent in the eight-month-long uprising. With Syrian troops who have defected, now fighting those who are still loyal to the regime there, leaving 70 dead in what one observer called gruesome fighting, even given the uprising. And now, President Assad 's neighbors -- Turkey , Jordan , the Arab League -- are all systematically turning against him. All of this raising new questions about how long he can last at the

Data: Young and restless: Demographics fuel Mideast protests

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