Activists: 24 killed as Ramadan starts in Syria

Members of a pro-Islamic human rights group and Syrians living in Turkey gather, one holding a placard that reads " we did not forget Hama" as they stage a protest against the Syrian regime and its leader Bashar Assad during a protest outside the Syrian embassy in Ankara, Turkey, Aug. 1, 2011.

BEIRUT - Syrian troops advanced in the central city of Hama on Tuesday, taking up new positions a day after government forces killed 24 people throughout the county on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, activists said.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said most of Monday's 24 deaths were in Hama, which has been the target of a heavy military operation since Sunday.

The current crackdown appears aimed at preventing protests from swelling during Ramadan, when Muslims throng mosques for the special nightly prayers after breaking their dawn-to-dusk fast. The gatherings could then turn into large protests throughout the country.

There has also been a fresh wave of international condemnation against a regime defying the growing calls to end its crackdown on anti-government protesters.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with U.S.-based Syrian democracy activists as the Obama administration weighed new sanctions on Syria. Congressional calls also mounted for action against President Bashar Assad's regime, as the death toll from two days of military assaults on civilians Sunday and Monday neared 100.

Italy recalled its ambassador to Syria "in the face of the horrible repression against the civil population" by the government, which launched a new push against protesters as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began Monday. It was the first European Union country to pull its ambassador, and the measure came a day after the EU tightened sanctions on Syria.

The mounting international outcry has had no apparent effect so far in Syria, an autocratic country that relies on Iran as a main ally in the region.

The top U.S. military officer said Washington wants to pressure the Syrian regime. But he added there was no immediate prospect of a Libya-style military intervention.

"There's no indication whatsoever that the Americans, that we would get involved directly with respect to this," Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said Tuesday.

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About 1,700 civilians have been killed since the largely peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad's regime began in mid-March, according to tallies by activists.

The regime disputes the toll and blames a foreign conspiracy for the unrest, saying religious extremists -- not true reform-seekers -- are behind it.

Hama-based activist Omar Hamawi told The Associated Press that troops advanced about 700 yards from the western entrance of the city overnight, taking up positions near homes and buildings in an area known as Kazo Square.

He said the force consisted of eight tanks and several armored personnel carriers.

Hamawi, who spoke to the AP over the telephone, added that troops were also reinforced on the eastern side of the city around the Hama Central Prison, an overcrowded jail.

He said residents there saw smoke billowing from the prison overnight and heard sporadic gunfire from inside the premises, leading some to believe that the inmates were rioting. He added that it was impossible to know what was exactly going on in the prison or whether there were casualties inside the tightly controlled facility.

The activist also said that parts of Hama were hit Tuesday morning with heavy machine gun fire after sporadic shelling overnight. He said a shell hit a compound known as the Palace of Justice in the city center, causing a huge fire that burned much of the building, that is home to several courts.

The Syrian Observatory said on Tuesday that Monday's death toll included 10 people in Hama, six in the Damascus suburb of Arbeen and three in the central province of Homs. Two were killed in the eastern town of al-Boukamal, two the coastal city of Latakia and one in Maadamiyah near Damascus, the group said.

Hama has a history of being opposed to the Assad family 40-year dynasty in Syria.

In 1982, Assad's father, Hafez Assad, ordered the military to quell a rebellion by Syrian members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood movement. The city was sealed off and bombs dropped from above smashed swaths of the city and killed between 10,000 and 25,000 people, rights groups say.

The real number may never be known. Then, as now, reporters were not allowed to reach the area.