President Assad is not without his supporters, who have rejected any foreign intervention in the crisis [Reuters]

At least 40 people have been killed in violence in Syria, rights groups and activists say, as pro- and anti-government forces reportedly clashed in Deraa province and elsewhere, with protests against Bashar al-Assad's government continuing.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday that security forces shot dead at least 16 civilians across the province of Deraa, where protests against Assad first began in earnest.

However, local activists in Deraa told the Reuters news agency that the death toll from clashes between forces loyal to Assad, the Syrian president, and those who have joined protesters against his rule could be as high as 40.

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They said that troops killed 20 people including army defectors and civilians in an assault on Khirbet Ghazaleh, a town near the Jordanian border and in the fighting that ensued near the town. They said a similar number of government troops were killed.

Troops attacked the town, located about 20km north of the border on the main highway between Amman and Damascus, after army defectors attacked a police bus at a highway intersection near the town, activists said.

"Members of the (defectors') brigade fought back when the army attacked and Bedouin from nearby villages also rushed to help Khirbet Ghazaleh," said one of the activists, who gave his name as Abu Hussein.

The Syrian Observatory said that the 16 people who had been killed in Deraa were shot near government checkpoints.

The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), a loose umbrella group of local anti-government protest organising committees, said that 50 people had been killed in violence across the country on Monday. It said 28 had been killed in Deraa, 13 in Homs, six in Idlib, two in Hama and one in al-Qamishli.

Government hits out

Amid the violence, Syria's foreign minister condemned an Arab League threat to suspend the country over its crackdown on protests, saying the move, which could be implemented at a league meeting on Wednesday, would be "illegal" and a "dangerous step".

"The suspension of the Arab League membership is illegal," Walid al-Muallem told a press conference in Damascus on Monday.

He also criticised the Cairo-based regional bloc's relations with the United States, calling the US an "unofficial member" of the league.

On Monday, the White House said that Assad's government was "continuing to be isolated" and that "the political pressure on them is building", according to spokesman Josh Earnest.

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The foreign minister also apologised for attacks on foreign diplomatic missions over the weekend. Government supporters raided the Qatari and Saudi embassies in Damascus on Saturday night. On Sunday, the Turkish embassy and consulates were attacked.

Addressing Syrians, Muallem said: "You should not feel any worry regarding the future. [Syria] will come out stronger due to the will of the people and national unity."

International pressure

European Union governments reached a preliminary agreement on Monday to extend sanctions against Syria to more individuals associated with a violent crackdown on dissent, an EU official said.

The agreement was expected to be confirmed by EU foreign ministers meeting later in Brussels, who will also endorse a decision to stop Syria accessing funds from the European Investment Bank, the official said.

However, Russia rejected the Arab League's threat to suspend Syria, with Sergei Lavrov, the country's foreign minister, telling Russian news agencies that he believed Western nations were inciting opposition against Assad.

Meanwhile, neighbouring Turkey ratcheted up rhetoric against Syria after the attacks on Turkish diplomatic facilities.

Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, told the Turkish parliament it was no longer possible to trust the Assad's
government.

"We will take the most resolute stance against these attacks and we will stand by the Syrian people's rightful struggle," he said.

Source: Al Jazeera