DAMASCUS: Syrian troops backed by tanks stormed the flashpoint town of Daraa on Monday killing at least 25 people, witnesses said, as a leading rights activist accused Damascus of opting for a "military solution" to crush dissent.
Troops also launched assaults on the towns of Douma and Al-Muadamiyah near Damascus, witnesses said, as the head of the U.N. human rights agency slammed what she said was the Syrian security forces' disregard for human life.
Amman said Syria had Monday sealed off its border with Jordan in a statement quickly denied by a top Syrian customs official.
An activist in Daraa, Abdullah Abazid, told AFP by telephone that Syrian forces were bombarding the town near the Jordanian border with heavy artillery and that "at least 25 martyrs have fallen."
"There are still bodies sprawled in the streets," he said as loud explosions and shooting could be heard in the background.
"They are pounding the town with heavy artillery and machine guns," Abazid said, adding that snipers posted on rooftops were also shooting.
Rights activists said a 3,000-strong military force swarmed into Daraa in the early hours of Monday, with tanks taking up positions in the town centre and snipers deploying on rooftops.
A witness reported at least five bodies in a car that had been raked by gunfire.
"We saw with our own eyes, they were in a car that was riddled with bullets," the witness said, adding that he was on a rooftop and could hear intense gunfire reverberating across the town.
"The minarets of the mosques are appealing for help. The security forces are entering houses. There is a curfew and they fire on those who leave their homes. They even shot at water tanks on roofs to deprive people of water."
A massive crackdown was also underway Monday in Douma, 15 kilometres (nine miles) north of Damascus, and nearby Al-Muadamiyah, rights activists said, reached by telephone.
"Security forces have surrounded a mosque and are firing indiscriminately. Streets are cut off from each other and Douma is isolated from the outside world," said an activist, adding that there have been sweeping arrests in the town since Sunday.
The military assaults come as Syria is engulfed in anti-regime protests that have sparked sparked security force crackdowns in which more than 360 people have been killed, according to rights activists and witnesses.
Of these, more than 140 people have died since Friday alone.
The crackdown comes despite President Bashar al-Assad signing on Thursday decrees ending a draconian state of emergency, imposed by the Baath Party when it seized power in 1963, to placate more than a month of pro-democracy protests.
He also abolished the state security court that has tried scores of regime opponents outside the normal judicial system and issued a decree "to regulate" peaceful demonstrations.
Rami Abdel Rahman, a prominent rights activist told AFP that Monday's assaults showed Damascus had decided to crush the protests militarily.
"It is clear that the Syrian authorities have taken a decision for a military and security solution," Abdel Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP by telephone.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called on Syria to stop the use of violence against protesters.
"The government has an international legal obligation to protect peaceful demonstrators and the right to peaceful protest," Pillay said in a statement issued in Geneva.
"The first step now is to immediately halt the use of violence," she added.
Pillay called the Syrian government's response to the demonstrations erratic.
"Just a few days after the announcement of sweeping and important reforms, we are seeing such disregard for human life by Syrian security forces," she said.
Tens of thousands swarmed cities and towns across Syria on Friday to test implementation of the reforms authorised by Assad a day earlier, but security forces used live rounds and tear gas against them, activists said.
Jordan's Information Minister Tahen Adwan, meanwhile, said Syria had "closed its land borders with Jordan", a few hours after the start of the assault on Daraa, which is situated around five kilometres (three miles) from the frontier.
But Syria's official news agency SANA cited the director general of customs, Mustapaha Bukai, denying the closing of the border and saying "all the border posts with our neighbours, including Jordan, are open."
The protests against Assad's regime started mid-March in Daraa and spread to other major centres, including the capital Damascus.
Syria blames "armed gangs" for the unrest aimed at fuelling sectarian strife among its multi-religious and multi-ethnic communities.