AMMAN- Hundreds of army defectors in southern Syria fought loyalist forces backed by tanks on Sunday in one of the biggest armed confrontations in a nine-month uprising against President Bashar Assad, residents and activists said.

Troops, mainly from the 12th Armored Brigade, based in Isra, 40-km from the border with Jordan, stormed the nearby town of Busra al-Harir.

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The sound of explosions and heavy machine-guns was heard in Busra al-Harir and in Lujah, an area of rocky hills north of the town, where defectors have been hiding and attacking military supply lines, they said.

"Lujah has been the safest area for defectors to hide because it is difficult for tanks and infantry to infiltrate. The region has caves and secret passage ways and extends all the way to Damascus countryside," one of the activists, who gave his name as Abu Omar, said from the town of Isra.

Syrians begin general strike in effort to bring down Assad regime

In addition to violent resistance, activists are promoting a general strike to encourage Syrians who may be frightened to join the uprising against the Assad family's 41-year rule.

In response to the strikes, which are contributing to the slowing of the Syrian economy, security forces told shopkeepers Sunday to open up their stores or they would be smashed.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that security forces in some neighborhoods on the outskirts of Damascus forced shopkeepers to open their shops.

"They were taken down to their stores and ordered to open them. They refused and the police smashed open the shop doors," said Rami Abdulrahman, head of the British-based rights group.

Syria has barred most independent journalists from the country, making it difficult to gauge the extent of participation in the strike.

But a witness who toured Damascus said most shops were closed in the main shopping street of the old Medan quarter in the center of the capital where there has been a heavy security presence. The main souk in Old Damascus remained open.

In the southern city of Deraa, security forces and militiamen loyal to Assad broke up the strike.

"They started pulling up the shutters of shops in the main Hanano and Martyrs streets in Deraa city to force shops to open," said one witness.

Official state media made no mention of Sunday's strikes. Central parts of the capital Damascus and the business hub Aleppo seemed calm though there are reports of strikes taking hold in some areas on the outskirts of both cities.

The opposition used Facebook and online video to call for an open-ended "Strike for Dignity" to begin on Sunday. Video posted on the internet and shot from moving cars showed shop after shop closed and shuttered in some places.

Activists hope to build up momentum this time, by starting first with shops and small businesses, then moving to schools, transportation and public services.

"It is little by little, so people get used to it," said activist Enana. She said around 30 percent of the shopkeepers she contacted in Damascus joined the strike.

"It can gradually take hold in Damascus and Aleppo. Today the goal is just to get some shops to close. We never expected there to be a huge response today."

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The strike has been slow to catch on in Homs, where citizens say they have no choice but to work. In the town of Maarat al-Noaman near Aleppo, activists said a voice over the loudspeaker of the local mosque warned residents to break their strike. Some Damascus residents said they received a message on their mobile phone purportedly from the Interior Ministry, telling Syrians not to strike.

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