Syria has faced constant anti-government protests since March[Youtube]

Syria's foreign minister, ignoring the mounting death toll from the government crackdown on dissent, has blamed "foreign intervention" for the violence and for causing delays in President Bashar al-Assad's plans for democratic reforms.

In a speech to the UN General Assembly on Monday, Walid Moualem sought to paint the Assad government as having been on the brink of wide-ranging democratic reforms when foreign inspired religious radicals and armed groups forced them to put down the rebellion to hold the country together.

"We deeply regret the surge in the activities of armed groups in Syria, which have not waned and instead continued to spiral.

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"The presence of these groups ... is the manifestation of foreign intervention."

Moualem said reforms "had to take a back seat to other priorities. Our overriding priority was facing the external pressures which were at times tantamount to blatant conspiracies."

As Moualem addressed the world leaders in New York, the violent crackdown on anti-government protesters continued in Syria.

Four soldiers were shot dead as they tried to defect and troops sealed off towns in a continuing crackdown on opponents of the president, activists said on Monday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, said the four soldiers were killed by military
police when they tried to flee their post in the northern province of Idlib, which borders Turkey. Another seven soldiers were arrested.

Official sites hacked

The military campaign has focused on towns and villages north of the city of Homs, where increasing numbers
of defectors have been organising and mounting guerrilla raids on roadblocks manned by troops and gunmen loyal to Assad.

In the town of Rastan, north of Homs, three people were injured when troops opened fire with heavy
machine guns mounted on tanks surrounding the town, which lies on the main northern highway leading to Turkey, residents said.

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Also on Monday, online activists hacked into the official websites of seven major Syrian cities and several government departments.

The activist groups Anonymous and RevoluSec claimed responsibility for the operation, leaving their mark on sites such as the ministry of transport and ministry of culture.

Activists replaced the official sites with caricatures of the Syrian president and a message saying, "Don't let Bashar monitor you online", along with tips on how to avoid detection by Syria's online intelligence - known as the Syrian electronic army.

Later on Monday, the pro-government Syrian electronic army claimed responsibility for briefly defacing the website of Harvard University in the US.

Hackers replaced the home page with an image of Syria's president, and a message accusing the US of supporting the uprising against Assad, and threatening retaliation.

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva has put the number of people killed in the crackdown on the uprising at more than 2,700 since March 15.

The Syrian authorities say 700 police and army personnel have been killed by "terrorists" and "mutineers".

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies