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Syria tightens siege, promises free elections

The Syrian military tightened its siege on the city of Hama on Saturday in its drive to crush the main center of the anti-regime uprising in the country, even as the foreign minister promised that free parliamentary elections would be held by the end of the year in a gesture of reform.

Like previous reform promises, the announcement is unlikely to influence the opposition, which says it has lost all confidence in President Bashar Assad's overtures.

The four-year term of parliament expired earlier this year, and Assad is expected to set a date for new legislative elections before the end of 2011.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem pledged to press ahead with reforms and said the new parliament "will represent the aspirations of the Syrian people."

Syria has come under increasing criticism over the bloody siege of Hama, launched last Sunday after residents calling for Assad's ouster took over the city of 800,000 and barricaded it against regime forces. Activists said Saturday that security forces killed 24 people around the country Friday.

A rights group says at least 100 people have been killed in Hama since the siege began, while some estimates put the number as high as 250.

In a statement posted Saturday on its website, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council expressed deep concern and regret for "the escalating violence in Syria and use of excess force."

A spokesman said in a news release that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon urged Assad in a phone conversation to stop the use of military force against civilians immediately.

In Damascus and other cities, mourners held funerals for several of those killed Friday. Videos posted online by activists showed crowds marching in the funeral procession of a teenager killed in the Damascus neighborhood of Midan.

Syria's state-run SANA news agency said funerals were also held for six soldiers and members of the security forces who were gunned down by "terrorist groups" and gunmen in Hama, Homs and the northern province of Idlib.

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