Syrian troops swept into the city of Hama to break a three-day strike by opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, killing at least 10 people but running into resistance from armed insurgents who destroyed two armored vehicles, activists said.
Outside Hama, army deserters attacked a convoy of military jeeps, killing eight soldiers, they said, adding to a death toll of at least 30 people across the country on Wednesday.
The assault in Hama was the first armored incursion there since a tank offensive in August crushed huge protests in the city. Activists said troops fired machineguns and ransacked and burnt shops which had closed to observe a mass, open-ended "Strike for Dignity" called by the opposition.
The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have died in Assad's crackdown on protests that erupted in the southern city of Deraa in March, inspired by Arab uprisings elsewhere.
"This cannot go on," United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in New York. "In the name of humanity, it is time for the international community to act."
Assad, 46, whose family from the minority Alawite sect has held power in majority Sunni Muslim Syria for four decades, is facing the most serious challenge to his 11-year rule.
The demonstrations started with peaceful calls for reform but burgeoned into demands for Assad's overthrow. A growing armed insurgency has since raised the specter of civil war.
The Syrian government says more than 1,100 members of the army, police and security services have been killed. State media reported military funerals on Wednesday for seven soldiers and police killed by "armed terrorist groups."
The United States and France, which blame Assad's forces for the violence, have urged the U.N. Security Council to respond to the mounting death toll.
But Syria retains international allies. Russia and China have blocked Western efforts to secure Council condemnation of Damascus, and its closest regional ally Iran offered support.
The state news agency SANA quoted the visiting Iranian minister for urban development and roads, Ali Nikzad, as saying his country would stand by Syria "and support its economy and its stances facing the great conspiracy targeting it."
SANA said Nikzad's visit to Damascus followed the endorsement by Iran's parliament on Tuesday of a free trade agreement between the two countries.
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