AMMAN - Hundreds of Syrians have been charged with "degrading the prestige of the state", a Syrian rights group said, in President Bashar Assad's drive to crush pro-democracy protests against his 11-year autocratic rule.

The charge, which carries a three-year prison sentence, was lodged on Tuesday against hundreds of people detained this week ahead of the Muslim day of prayer on Friday, when the largest demonstrations calling for Assad's overthrow are typically seen.

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"Mass arrests are continuing across Syria in another violation of human rights and international conventions," said Rami Abdelrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The campaign intensified after a tank-backed army unit, led by Assad's brother Maher, last week shelled and machine-gunned into submission the old quarter of Deraa, cradle of the six-week-old uprising.

Wissam Tarif, executive director of the Insan human rights group, said 2,843 detainees had been verified by family members and the actual number could be as high as 8,000. More than 800 of them had been taken from Deraa.

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Those detained across the country include activists, community leaders, people seen taking videos or pictures on mobile phones and people suspected of uploading videos on the Internet, Tarif said. But security forces were also randomly detaining people in Deraa and Douma, Tarif said.

Security forces have killed at least 560 civilians in attacks on demonstrators since the protests erupted in Deraa on March 18, human rights groups say.

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Tuesday the use of tanks, arbitrary arrests and power cuts in Deraa was "...quite barbaric and amounts to the collective punishment of innocent civilians".

Amnesty International said protesters told the rights group they had been beaten with sticks and cables and were subjected to harsh conditions, including a lack of food.

"The use of unwarranted lethal force, arbitrary detention and torture appear to be the desperate actions of a government that is intolerant of dissent and must be halted immediately," Amnesty official Philip Luther said.

Residents of Damascus suburbs, where many were arrested, said roadblocks and arrests had intensified this week in areas around the capital. One resident said she saw security forces in plain clothes putting up sandbags and a machine-gun on a road near the town of Kfar Batna on Tuesday.

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