AMMAN - Syrian troops and gunmen loyal to President Bashar Assad stormed a town near the Turkish border on Saturday, burning houses and arresting 70 people, witnesses said, in wide-ranging military assault to crush a three month uprising.

"They came at 7 a.m. to Bdama. I counted nine tanks, 10 armoured carriers, 20 jeeps and 10 buses. I saw shabbiha (gunmen) setting fire to two houses," said Saria Hammouda, a lawyer from the small town of Bdama.

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The town lies 2 km from the Turkish border, in Jisr al-Shughour region, from where thousands of people have fled to Turkey following military assaults to quell dissent against 41 years of Assad family rule

In Lebanon, the Lebanese army clamped down on two sectarian districts of a northern city on Saturday after a rally in support of anti-government protesters in Syria triggered deadly clashes between rival gunmen.

Troops manned checkpoints and searched cars and houses in Tripoli's Bab al-Tebbaneh neighbourhood, a Sunni Muslim stronghold, and Jabal Mohsen neighbourhood, whose residents hail from the same Alawite sect as Syrian President Bashar Assad.

19 Syrians died on Friday when Syrian government forces fired at demonstrators demanding the removal of President Bashar Assad in the biggest protest since unrest against Baathist rule erupted in March, activists said.

European powers, which had initiated a detente with Assad prior to the street protests to try to draw the Syrian leader away from Iran and also stabilize Lebanon, said Damascus should face tougher sanctions for the violence.

Tens of thousands of people rallied across the country, defying Assad's military crackdown and ignoring a pledge that his tycoon cousin Rami Makhlouf, a symbol of corruption, would renounce his business empire and channel his wealth to charity.

"Protests last week were big and this week they are bigger still. The demonstrators have not held squares consistently yet in big cities like we had seen in Egypt, but we're heading in this direction," opposition figure Walid Bunni told Reuters by telephone from Damascus.

"The security grip is weakening because the protests are growing in numbers and spreading, and more people are risking their lives to demonstrate. The Syrian people realize that this is an opportunity for liberty that comes once in hundreds of years," said Bunni, who was a political prisoner for eight years.

The worst bloodshed was in Homs, a merchant city of one million people in central Syria, where the Local Coordination Committees, a main activist group linked to protesters, said 10 demonstrators were killed. State television said a policeman was killed by gunmen.

One protester was also reported killed in the northern commercial hub of Aleppo, the first to die there in the unrest.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which operates from Britain, said it could confirm only 10 civilians killed overall in Syria.

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