Syrian forces kept up a relentless campaign against the country's two-month uprising Thursday, using tanks to shell a besieged border town as President Barack Obama called on Syria's president to lead his country to democracy or "get out of the way."
President Bashar Assad has taken pains to portray confidence and a steely determination in recent days amid signs that his brutal crackdown is terrifying the population into submission.
The regime's crackdown on dissent, which has killed more than 850 people, continued ahead of another round of protests planned for after Friday prayers. Syria's state-run news agency also condemned new U.S. sanctions, saying they "did not and will not affect Syria's independent choices and steadfastness."
The Syrian army shelled the town of Talkalakh overnight and early Thursday, sparking gunbattles that killed at least eight people.
The overnight attack killed at least eight people, bringing the death toll to 34 since the military sealed off the border town Saturday and moved in tanks and troops, two human rights activists told The Associated Press.
"We heard shelling throughout the night and can still hear gunfire every now and then," said a Talkalakh resident, who fled across the border to Lebanon as Syrian troops brought in reinforcements. He said he could see troops patrolling the border and smoke from fires in the town, apparently from homes burning.
Syrians fleeing to Lebanon in recent days have described horrific scenes of execution-style slayings and bodies in the streets in Talkalakh.
Last week, mass arrests and heavy security kept crowds below previous levels seen during the uprising, suggesting Assad's sweeping campaign of intimidation is working.
Obama on Thursday called for the first time for the leader of Syria to embrace democracy or "get out of the way," though without specifically demanding his ouster. The Syrian government "has chosen the path of murder and the mass arrests of its citizens," Obama said, praising the Syrian people for their courage in standing up to repression.
Syria has banned foreign journalists and prevented coverage of the conflict, making it nearly impossible to independently verify accounts coming out of the country or to gauge the strength of the unprecedented protest movement in one of the most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.
Talkalakh, a town of some 70,000 people near the border with Lebanon, is known to be a smuggling area where many residents are armed. It has been a hotbed of dissent during the two-month uprising against Assad's autocratic rule.
One activist, who asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisals from the government, said there were heavy exchanges of fire between security forces and armed civilians. He added that 19 soldiers also have died in the town.
A second activist, Mustafa Osso, said he could not confirm the accounts of armed resistance from civilians. He said his group was investigating reports that security forces were shooting at soldiers who refused to fire on civilians.
The U.S. action marks the first time that sanctions hold Assad personally accountable for actions of his security forces. The European Union, meanwhile, is pushing for a second round of European sanctions that would target Assad.
Syria and its ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, both alluded to charges that the U.S. is conspiring with Israel.
Hezbollah said the sanctions amount to a settling of accounts with Syria because of its support for Hezbollah, the Palestinian people and its refusal to take dictates from America.
The Syrian government called the sanctions "one in a series of sanctions imposed by the U.S. administration against the Syrian people as part of U.S. regional policies serving Israel."
The statements come against the backdrop of Obama's speech, in which he said "too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people's grievances elsewhere. The West was blamed as the source of all ills, a half century after the end of colonialism. Antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression."
Zeina Karam can be reached at http://twitter.com/zkaram