- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 22, 2011

BEIRUT (AP) — Turkey’s prime minister said Tuesday that Syria’s president must step down over the country’s crackdown on dissent, ratcheting up the pressure on the increasingly isolated Bashar Assad, as Syrian activists reported that four children were killed by security forces.

The Local Coordination Committees, a key activist network, and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the children, between the ages of 10 and 15, were killed by gunshots fired at random from a military checkpoint near the town of Houla in the restive Homs province.

The LCC said Syrian forces backed by tanks and armored vehicles stormed the area of Houla and were besieging the district of Bayada in Homs, a hotbed of dissent against President Assad’s regime.

Syria places severe restrictions on the work of journalists and bans most foreign journalists from the country, making confirmation of events on the ground difficult.

In his harshest words yet, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey reminded Assad of the bloody end of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and those of past dictators, including Adolf Hitler.

“For the welfare of your own people and the region, just leave that seat,” Erdogan said in a televised speech.

“If you want to see someone who has fought until death against his own people, just look at Nazi Germany, just look at Hitler, at Mussolini, at Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania,” he said. “If you cannot draw any lessons from these, then look at the Libyan leader who was killed just 32 days ago.”

Erdogan’s warning came the day after Syrian soldiers opened fire on at least two buses carrying Turkish citizens, witnesses and officials said, apparent retaliation for Turkey’s criticism of Assad, whose military crackdown on an 8-month-old uprising against his rule has killed nearly 4,000 people.

“To protect travelers, espcially those returning from the hajj, is a country’s honor,” Erdogan said, referring to the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Neighboring Turkey was once a close economic and political partner of Syria, but Erdogan has grown increasingly critical of the Syrian regime. He said last week that the world must urgently “hear the screams” from Syria and do something to stop the bloodshed.

Turkey has allowed Syrian refugees and military defectors to take refuge on its soil, and Syria’s political opposition has used Turkey as a place to meet and organize.

Assad’s deepening isolation and the growing calls for his ouster are a severe blow to a family dynasty that has ruled Syria for four decades — and any change to the leadership could transform some of the most enduring alliances in the Middle East and beyond.

Syria’s uprising has grown increasingly violent in recent months. Army defectors who sided with the revolt have grown bolder in recent weeks, fighting back against regime forces and even attacking military bases — raising fears of a civil war.

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Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.