Protesters gather during a demonstration in the southern town of Nawa, near Daraa, last Wednesday. The banners read, ‘Appeal to the president lifting the Nawa’s seige’ (left) and ‘O God’, ‘Save us. We are thirsty’. Image Credit: Reuters

Amman: Syrian army troops backed by tanks and helicopters on Saturday took a prominent mosque that had been controlled by residents in a besieged southern city, killing six people, a witness said.

The operation in the town of Daraa came a day after President Al Bashar Assad unleashed deadly force to crack down on a month-old revolt, killing at least 65 people, mostly in the border town.

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A Daraa resident said the assault on the mosque lasted 90 minutes, during which troops fired tank shells and heavy machine guns. Three helicopters took part in the operation, dropping paratroopers onto the mosque itself, he said.

As the death toll rose, activists vowed to keep the pressure on the regime of Al Assad, promising a new week of pro-democracy protests.

Another 138 members of Al Assad's ruling Baath Party quit in protest at the deadly crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, according to collective resignation lists received by AFP in Nicosia.

Deadly clashes over the past week, mostly in the southern province of Daraa, pushed the nationwide count above 550 since the revolt began in mid-March, Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights, and Ammar Qurabi, head of Syria's National Organisation for Human Rights, said in telephone interviews on Saturday.

A witness told Al Jazeera television that he had seen 20 tanks enter the city. Many of those injured were being treated by people in their homes, after access to hospitals became harder due to continuous fire and threat of arrests by police, he added.

A resident said Karak, a hilltop in Daraa's old quarter, bore the brunt of the shelling. Al Assad's brother, Maher, commands the Fourth Mechanised Division which stormed the city on Monday.

Intensifying operations

"The shelling has stopped. There are snipers on the roof of the mosque," he said, adding that forces appeared to be in control of the old quarter for the first time.

Residents said earlier they could hear heavy gunfire in the old city where the Omari Mosque, a focal point for protests, is located.

"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," resident Abu Ahmad told Reuters by telephone earlier.

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, Maher, and cousin, Atif Najib.

European Union diplomats said they reached an initial deal to impose an arms embargo and would consider further measures.