Syrian troops surround Hama as violence mounts

BEIRUT - A Syrian rights activist says soldiers and tanks are moving into more volatile areas across the country as the regime tries to crush an uprising that exploded nearly two months ago.

Mustafa Osso said on Thursday that troops backed by tanks have deployed around the central city of Hama, known for a bloody 1982 revolt crushed by the regime.

Other activists say security forces used clubs to disperse about 2,000 demonstrators late Wednesday at the university campus in Aleppo, Syria's largest city.

The moves come ahead of another day of expected protests throughout Syria on Friday.

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Syria shells residential areas; 18 dead

The Syrian army shelled residential areas in central Syria on Wednesday, killing at least 18 people including an 8-year-old, human rights groups and witnesses said.

Heavy gunfire was heard as at least three residential neighborhoods were hit by tank fire in the besieged city of Homs, which has experienced some of the largest anti-government demonstrations in recent weeks.

The witnesses and activists, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals, said the shelling was targeting the Bab Sbaa, Bab Amr and Jouret el Aris neighborhoods.

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In Washington, Obama administration officials said the first step in a new American approach toward Syria would be to declare that Assad has forfeited his legitimacy to rule, a policy shift that would amount to a call for regime change.

The tougher U.S. line almost certainly would echo demands for "democratic transition" that the administration used in Egypt and is now espousing in Libya, the officials said. But directly challenging Assad's leadership is a decision fraught with problems: Arab countries are divided, Europe is still trying to gauge its response and there are major doubts over how far the United States could go to back up its words with action.

More than 750 people have been killed and thousands detained since the uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime began in mid-March.