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Syrians implement general strike

BEIRUT -- Syrians closed their businesses and kept children home from school yesterday as part of a general strike, a powerful show of civil disobedience to pressure President Bashar Assad to end his 9-month-old crackdown on a popular uprising.

The open-ended strike takes direct aim at the country's already ailing economy. It is designed to erode Assad's main base of support -- the new and vibrant merchant classes who have benefited in recent years as the president opened up the economy.

If the economy continues to collapse, Assad could find himself with few allies inside the country, where calls are growing by the day for him to step down. The authoritarian president is already struggling under international isolation and suffocating sanctions.

It is difficult to gauge the strength of the strike because the regime has banned most foreign journalists. But there were signs it was being widely observed, in particular in centers of anti-government protest: the southern province of Daraa, the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, the northwestern region of Idlib and in the restive city of Homs.

The opposition wants the strike to remain in force until the regime pulls the army out of cities and releases thousands of detainees.

"Only bakeries, pharmacies and some vegetable shops are open," said one resident of Homs who asked that his name not be published for fear of reprisals. He said those stores stayed open because they sell essential goods.

He said security was tight in Homs with agents deployed at every intersection. The crackle of

Activists said a new round of clashes between Syrian troops and army defectors began Sunday with a major battle in the south and spread to new areas yesterday, raising fears the conflict is spiraling toward civil war.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said new clashes between soldiers and defectors were reported yesterday in Idlib in the north, and that fighting continued for a second day in southern Daraa province. Four members of the security forces were killed, the Observatory said.

At least 16 people were reported killed nationwide yesterday, most of them in Homs, according to various activist networks.

Meanwhile, the government pushed ahead with municipal elections that the opposition dismissed as a meaningless concession that falls far short of their demands. Turnout was said to be low.

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