'138 Baath Party members resign to protest Syria crackdown'

Mostly low-level members of ruling party show contempt for violence used on anti-gov't demonstrators, report says; tanks shell, storm Deraa's old quarter; 6 killed.

Tank Syria Deraa 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Tank Syria Deraa 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
138 members of Syrian President Bashar Assad's ruling Baath Party resigned Saturday to protest violent crackdowns on anti-government protesters, The Associated Press reported.
Earlier this week, another 200 mostly low-level Baath party members in the Deraa province resigned over the deadly crackdown.
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Earlier on Saturday, the Syrian government ordered more tanks into Deraa and heavy gunfire was heard in the city as security forces tried to crush a revolt against Assad, residents said. Six people were killed in the offensive, the BBC reported.
Syrian troops and tanks first swept into Deraa on Monday to quell pro-democracy protests against Assad that have spread across the country of 20 million, posing the biggest challenge to his rule and prompting Western powers to impose sanctions.
Deraa, a southern city of 120,000 people, is the cradle of a six-week-old uprising which started with demands for more freedom and an end to corruption. It developed into a movement to overthrow Assad following a violent crackdown by authorities.
Residents said they could hear heavy gunfire, mostly from Deraa's old quarter, which is situated on a hill near the Jordanian border and is mostly residential.
"Since dawn, we've been hearing a heavy exchange of gunfire that is echoing across the city and you do not know what's happening," Abu Tareq, a resident, told Reuters by phone.
"I saw more than 15 tanks that had entered from the Damascus highway heading in the direction of the Old City."
It was not immediately clear whether tanks and mounted armored carriers were shelling the city or agricultural land near the border.
Another resident, Abu Ahmad, told Reuters he had heard tanks had stormed areas in the old city, where the Omari Mosque, which has been a focal point for protests, is located.
Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East
Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East
"It looks like they [security forces] want to finish their campaign today. From the new tank deployments, it looks as though they are intensifying their operations today."
Despite the heavy military deployments and mass arrests, demonstrators again took to the streets calling for Assad's overthrow on Friday.
Soldiers in Deraa killed 19 people on Friday when they fired on protesters who were trying to enter the city from nearby villages in a show of solidarity, a medical source said.
Syrian rights groups put Friday's death toll at 62, pushing the number of deaths since an uprising that has posed the biggest challenge to the Assad dynasty's four decades in power, to more than 500.
The crackdown prompted Western powers to take their first concrete steps in punishing Syria for the bloodshed. Washington imposed new sanctions on government figures, including Assad's brother, who commands the army division which stormed Deraa on Monday.
Assad's cousin, Atif Najib, was also targeted as was Ali Mamluk, director of general intelligence and Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard, accused of helping the Syrian crackdown. Syria has denied Iran was helping it quell protests.