Syrian forces are shelling the western town of Rastan Thursday, continuing a crackdown on pro-democracy movements in core parts of the country.

Witnesses say a number of buildings in the ancient town were destroyed.

On Wednesday, rights groups put the civilian death toll from the crackdown in that region of Syria at 41 or more, including two young girls.

The government attacks have been focused on towns around the central city of Homs. The majority of the killings took place in recent days in Rastan, a town whose historical significance dates to Roman Empire times.

Rights groups say that overall, at least 25 children are among the more than 1,000 people killed during the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. They say his security forces have arrested 10,000 more in a campaign to crush the unprecedented protests.

Witness reports in Syria, as well as official accounts, are difficult to independently verify because the government has barred most international journalists from the country.

The Syrian government freed hundreds of political prisoners Wednesday, a day after Assad announced a general amnesty. The releases were an apparent bid to appease activists calling for his resignation. But Syrian opposition leaders meeting in Turkey rejected the amnesty and said they will continue to push for regime change.

The United States and France both said the amnesty would not be enough. U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the Syrian president’s effort fell short and that all political prisoners need to be freed. In Paris, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Syrian authorities must be “much more ambitious, much bolder than a simple amnesty.”

Also Wednesday, President Assad announced the formation of a committee to map out a national dialogue with the opposition. State-run media quoted him as saying the talks will address issues related to Syria’s social, economic and political future.

Syrian opposition activists have been protesting almost daily since March for democratic reforms and an end to Assad’s 11-year autocratic rule.


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