- Associated Press - Sunday, May 1, 2011

CAIRO | Syrian army tanks shelled the old quarter of a city at the heart of the country’s six-week-old uprising Sunday, as military reinforcements rolled in to join a siege that has lasted for nearly a week, a witness said.

Residents of Daraa have remained defiant: Unable to leave their homes, they have chanted “God is great!” to each other from their windows in the evenings, infuriating security forces and raising their own spirits.

“Our houses are close to each other, so even though we can’t go outside, we stand by the windows and chant,” said a Daraa resident, speaking to the Associated Press by satellite phone. “Our neighbors can hear us and they respond.”

Daraa has been without water, fuel or electricity since last Monday, when the regime sent in troops backed by tanks and snipers to try to crush protests seeking an end to President Bashar Assad’s authoritarian rule.

Tanks and armored personal vehicles have cut off neighborhoods, and snipers nesting on rooftops throughout the city have kept residents pinned in their homes.

Other areas of the country also have come under military control, but Daraa has faced the most serious stranglehold.

The death toll has soared to 545 nationwide from government forces firing on demonstrators - action that has drawn international condemnation and U.S. financial penalties on senior figures in Mr. Assad’s regime.

Tanks fired shells into the heart of Daraa’s ancient Roman quarter Sunday, said a resident who lives on the outskirts of the city. He said he could identify the weaponry because he is a former soldier.

Men were forbidden to leave their homes, but women were allowed out in the early morning to search for bread, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear that Syrian forces would identify him.

The witness’ accounts could not be independently verified.

Syria has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted access to trouble spots, making it almost impossible to confirm the events shaking one of the most authoritarian regimes in the Arab world.

The unrest has repercussions far beyond Syria’s borders because of its alliances with militant groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinians’ Hamas and with Shiite powerhouse Iran.

If the regime in Syria falls, the instability has the potential to upend the regional power balance in a part of the world already riven by strife.

In recent weeks, there have been small signs that cracks are developing in the regime. Hundreds of members of Mr. Assad’s ruling Baath Party have resigned because of the crackdown.

Human rights activists uploaded a video to YouTube on Sunday that they say showed another 200 party members stepping down in Rasten. Rasten and the nearby town of Talbisseh saw some of the worst violence Friday, when security forces opened fire on protesters.