Damascus: Syrian security forces shot dead 17 people in the protest hub of Homs on Thursday, while withdrawing from the city of Hama, as Washington turned up the heat on embattled President Bashar al-Assad.
      
Yesterday, a defiant Assad had pledged to pursue a relentless battle against "terrorist groups," seemingly oblivious to the mounting international pressure against his regime.
   
Brazil, India and South Africa have all stepped into the diplomatic fray, dispatching envoys to Damascus to seek a solution to the crisis and end the bloody crackdown that has claimed more than 2,000 lives since mid-March.
      
Security forces "fired indiscriminately on residents of the Baba Amro neighbourhood, killing 11 people," one activist told the agency in Nicosia by telephone from the central city.
      
The toll was later raised to 17, with at least another 20 wounded.
   
"Some bodies are lying in the sun and people cannot remove them because of the shooting," one activist said.

Meanwhile, an agency correspondent on a government-sponsored tour said dozens of military vehicles crammed with soldiers streamed out of Hama to which residents were trickling back.

"The army units have gone back to their barracks after having accomplished their mission, and residents, happy to be rid of the armed gangs who tried to sow discord among the
population, have returned home," a high-ranking officer said.
   
That was confirmed by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who sent his ambassador to Hama to witness the pullout. "Our ambassador went to Hama and said that the tanks, security forces had started to leave Hama. This is highly important to show that our initiatives had positive results," Erdogan said in Ankara.

Meanwhile, a military source said troops were also pulling out of one town in the province of Idlib bordering Turkey.
   
The operation aimed "to hunt down saboteurs and armed groups at the request of Idlib's residents" and troops are now "returning to their barracks, after achieving their mission," the source said.
  
The agency journalist said she saw dozens of soldiers’ stream out of Ariha in the south of Idlib province.
  
But rights activist Rami Abdel Rahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops were conducting a vast operation in the Idlib town of Sermin, where
a woman was killed.
   
Explosions and heavy gunfire also echoed in the eastern oil hub of Deir Ezzor and residents were fearing a new military operations in the city where the army killed 42 people on Sunday and 17 on Wednesday, said Abdel Rahman.

In a new turn of the screw, the United States imposed sanctions on Syria's largest commercial lender, Commercial Bank of Syria, and largest mobile phone operator, Syriatel.
      
The US Treasury said it was "taking aim at the financial infrastructure that is helping provide support to Assad and his regime's illicit activities."
   
The move freezes the US assets of the businesses targeted and prohibits US entities from engaging in any business dealings with them, the Treasury said.


(Agencies)