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Syrian officials killed in ambush as opposition steps up violence

Gunmen in Syria staged a guerrilla-style ambush that killed a senior state prosecutor and a judge Sunday in an attack that suggested armed factions are growing bolder and more coordinated in their uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime.

The roadway slayings -- reported in an opposition-dominated northern region by the Syrian state news agency -- came a day after a deadly hit-and-run attack on a political figure in the heart of the pro-Assad city of Aleppo.

The latest assassinations came on a road in the northwest province of Idlib, which has become a patchwork of areas held either by the government or mutinous soldiers who have safe-haven bases in nearby Turkey.

The state news agency SANA said gunmen opened fire on a car carrying Idlib provincial state prosecutor Nidal Ghazal and Judge Mohammed Ziadeh, who were killed instantly. The driver also was fatally wounded.

Idlib has witnessed intense clashes between troops loyal to Assad and army defectors who attack and then melt into the rugged mountains. In June, the town of Jisr al-Shugour became the first area to fall into the hands of rebels, who were accused by the government of killing scores of people and setting government buildings on fire.

Syrian troops loyal to Assad retook the area shortly afterward.

Saturday, SANA said gunmen shot to death Jamal al-Bish, a member of the city council of the nearby northern city of Aleppo. The city has been a center of support for Assad since the uprising began.

The back-to-back slayings follow the Feb. 11 killing of a Syrian army general in the first assassination to take place in the capital city of Damascus. Brig. Gen. Issa al-Khouli, a doctor and the chief of a military hospital in the capital, was shot as he left his home. Last month, the head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent branch in Idlib was shot to death while on his way to Damascus.

The targeted killings have not reached Assad's inner circle, but they indicate a growing shift toward violent tactics by the opposition as it brings aboard more military defectors and seeks to tighten control over the small pieces of territory in its hands.

The United Nations last gave a death toll for the conflict in January, saying 5,400 people had been killed in 2011.

But hundreds more have been killed since, according to activist groups. An opposition group, Local Coordination Committees, says more than 7,300 have been killed since the uprising began more than 11 months ago.

There is no way to independently verify the numbers, since Syria bans almost all foreign journalists and human rights organizations.

The fear of a looming civil war has neighboring Jordan racing to finish a refugee camp near the Syrian border to handle a possible exodus of people fleeing for safety.

In related news Sunday:

*Egypt became the latest Arab nation to publicly snub Assad by ordering the withdrawal of its ambassador in Damascus. No reason was given for the decision, but Arab governments have been pulling back diplomatic backing for Assad in protest against his refusal to back regional peace efforts.

*In Homs, central Syria, government forces sent in reinforcements as they shelled the rebel-held Baba Amr district, which has been under near-constant barrage for almost two weeks, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The group said at least 14 people were killed Sunday across Syria, half of them by government troops.