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4-year-old girl among the dead as Syrian troops attack town

/ Source: msnbc.com news services

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.

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, , 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.

Syrian authorities deny Hamza was tortured, saying he was killed at a demonstration in which armed gangs shot at guards.