|Tanks enter Homs and continue crackdown [AFP]
Ranks have entered the central Syrian city of Homs, according to activists, in a sign that President Bashar al-Assad remains willing to put down ongoing protests with force despite the impending arrival of a UN humanitarian mission.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said troops wounded at least eight people on Saturday in Homs, where a general strike was under way in protest against the crackdown.
"We began to hear the sound of gunfire from early morning," an activist in Homs who gave his name as Abdul Al-Rahman told Al Jazeera.
"I also heard a big explosion from the Bab Amr district. Several armoured vehicles with hundreds of soldiers, security men and shabiha [regime thugs] entered Homs' Sunni districts of Khaldiyeh, Aanshat and Bab Sbaa."
Videos posted online by the Shaam News Network appeared to show armoured personnel carriers driving through the streets of the city at dawn, with automatic gunfire audible in the background.
SOHR also said two people were killed in Rastan, a town between Homs and Hama, as security forces opened fire to disperse a demonstration.
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Meanwhile, opponents of Bashar al-Assad met in Turkey to launch a "national council".
Participants in two days of meetings in an Istanbul hotel, from both inside and outside Syria, planned to set up working groups and draft measures aimed at ousting Assad, organisers said.
"The Syrian national council will have between 115 and 150 members, more than half of whom are in Syria, with the remainder in exile," dissident Obeida al-Nahhas told AFP.
US-based lawyer and activist Yasser Tabbara said: "Our priority number one is to topple the regime" in Syria.
"This is a consultative meeting to discuss the establishment of a national council that would be a platform to bring together all different sections of the Syrian opposition and representatives from the pro-democratic movement in Syria".
The meeting followed another Friday of protests and violence which the SOHR said killed 34 people - 15 in the southern Deraa province, 16 in Homs and three in the Damascus suburbs of Douma and Harasta.
Security forces in al-Hirak, one of the southern towns where violence occurred, were refusing to return the bodies of six dead protesters to their relatives, an eyewitness told Al Jazeera.
"People are so angry here. They want the bodies back to bury but there are snipers all over the buildings and a curfew preventing anyone from leaving their home," he said on Saturday.
The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC ), a Syrian activist network, reported that security forces had surrounded the Hirak hospital to prevent the bodies being returned.
Heavy gunfire was being used to scare residents into staying at home, while pro-government Dunia TV filmed the empty streets, in an apparent effort to show Hirak was quiet.
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The official SANA news agency blamed the shooting in Deraa province on Friday on "armed men", saying three policemen and two civilians were killed in the village of Ghabagheb.
The UN says about 2,000 people have been killed in Syria since protests began in March.
Activists also reported a wave of arrests in the coastal city of Latakia on Saturday, adding that authorities were cleaning up the al-Ramel neighbourhood after a four-day military operation earlier this week.
A mission from the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs was expected to arrive in Damascus on Saturday and visit Latakia on Sunday. The visit comes on the heels of a UN human rights report that recommended the Security Council consider referring Assad's government to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
International condemnation of the violence in Syria is mounting, and the European Union on Saturday decided to add 20 new names to a list of Syrian individuals and businesses already subjected to sanctions.
"Proposals are now being prepared for an embargo on the import of Syrian crude oil into the European Union," said Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief.
On Thursday, the US and EU for the first time explicitly called for Assad to step down. The US also banned new US investment in Syria and any dealings in the country's petroleum sector.
Al-Thawra, a state-owned Syrian newspaper, rejected the calls for Assad to leave power, saying they revealed the "face of the conspiracy'' against Damascus.
Assad will give an interview on Syrian television on Sunday "about the situation in Syria, the continuing process of reforms, the repercussions of American and Western political and economic pressures and a vision of the future for Syria in the current regional and international context," state news agency SANA said.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies