- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 1, 2011

BEIRUT — A government crackdown on two Syrian towns killed at least 33 people, including an 11-year-old girl shot dead by soldiers during a fierce shelling, activists said Wednesday.

Children have become a flash point issue in the uprising against the Syrian regime after video emerged of the mutilated and apparently tortured remains of a 13-year-old boy.

To blunt growing criticism, the government said Wednesday that it had ordered an investigation into the death of the teen, who has become a new symbol of the revolt against President Bashar Assad.

But the latest child’s death, late Tuesday, seemed certain to inflame tensions. Rights groups say more than 1,000 people have been killed in the crackdown nationwide, including 25 children.

The opposition already has rejected the government’s plan to release political prisoners, once a key demand but now one they say is little more than a ploy to buy time for Mr. Assad.

The Local Coordination Committees in Syria, which helps organize and document the country’s protests, said 25 people were fatally shot Tuesday in the central town of Rastan, which has seen a major military clampdown in recent days.

In the south, Syrian troops shelled the town of Hirak with tanks and artillery, killing at least eight people on Tuesday and Wednesday, including 11-year-old Malak Munir al-Qaddah, human rights activist Mustafa Osso said.

Mr. Osso said scores of people were detained after government forces regained control of Hirak.

State-run Syrian TV said Interior Minister Mohammed Shaar ordered an investigation into 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib’s death, which has led to widespread outrage after images of his body with what appeared to be marks of torture and gunshot wounds was shown on YouTube and Al-Jazeera TV.

Al-Jazeera did not air the whole video, but a copy posted by the opposition on YouTube shows that the boy’s penis was severed and his neck broken. The body, lying on a plastic sheet, appeared pink and the eyes were mottled with bruises and black marks.

Opposition groups blamed security forces for the boy’s death.

State TV aired an interview late Tuesday with Dr. Akram Shaar, who examined Hamza’s body. He said the cause of the death was shooting, and three bullets had hit the boy’s body. He added that what appeared to be bruises and signs of torture were the result of natural decomposition since the boy died April 29.

His body was handed over to his family May 21, state TV said.

The station also aired a recorded interview with Hamza’s father, who said he was received by Mr. Assad this week. The father added that the president considers “Hamza as his son and was touched” by the death.

The uprising has been the most serious challenge to the Assad family’s 40-year rule. The government claims the revolt is the work of Islamic extremists and armed gangs.