Syrian troops have again advanced in the central city of Hama, taking up new positions a day after activists said government forces killed 24 people throughout the country on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

A London-based independent rights group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said on Tuesday that most of the 24 deaths were in Hama, which has been the target of a heavy military operation since Sunday.

At least six civilians were killed early on Tuesday in an assault on the eastern Damascus suburb of Erbin, residents told the Reuters news agency.

"Tens of people are wounded. Six are dead, of whom three have been identified," an activist in the suburb said.

About 1,700 civilians have been killed since the largely peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad's government began in mid-March, according to tallies by activists.

Authorities dispute the toll and blames a foreign conspiracy for the unrest, saying religious extremists are behind it.

Troop deployments

Omar Hamawi, a Hama-based activist, said troops advanced about 700 metres from the western entrance of Hama overnight, taking up positions near homes and buildings in an area known as Kazo Square.

He said the force consisted of eight tanks and several armoured personnel carriers.

It was difficult for Al Jazeera to independently verify the reports of the assault.

Hamawi, who spoke to the Associated Press news agency over the phone, said troops were also reinforced on the eastern side of the city around the Hama Central Prison, an overcrowded jail.

He said residents there saw smoke billowing from the prison overnight and heard sporadic gunfire from inside the premises, leading some to believe that the inmates were rioting.

Hamawi also said that parts of Hama were hit on Tuesday morning with heavy machine gun fire after sporadic shelling overnight. He said a shell hit a compound known as the Palace of Justice in the city centre, causing a huge fire that burned much of the building, that is home to several courts.

International reaction

On the diplomatic front, Italy said on Tuesday that it had recalled its ambassador to Syria, citing Damascus' "horrible repression" and urged other EU nations to do the same.

Rome made the move "in order to send a strong signal of condemnation for the inacceptable repression," Stefania Craxi, the Italian foreign ministry undersecretary, said.

Rome's appeal to fellow EU nations was not immediately heeded. Belgium, the UK, Denmark, Spain and Sweden had no such plans for now. France also signaled no move was imminent, suggesting Rome had not sent its proposals through official diplomatic channels, and there was no EU-wide directive to recall envoys from Damascus, officials in Brussels said.

Italy will also suspend co-operative programmes with Damascus, save for humanitarian aid destined to Iraqi refugees, Craxi said.

The EU added Ali Habib, the Syrian defence minister, and several other security officials to a list of members of Assad's government targeted by asset freezes and travel bans.

Five officials were added to the sanctions list published in the EU's Official Journal, including Syria's head of internal security, and the head of intelligence in the town of Hama, which the EU says was the scene of an indiscriminate "massacre" of civilians.

The EU has already imposed sanctions on Assad and 29 other individuals and has also targeted military-linked firms associated with the suppression of dissent.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies