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Armored Syrian forces storm towns near Turkey border

Sep 14, 2011, 6:49 a.m.

By Khaled Oweis AMMAN (Reuters) - Dozens of tanks and hundreds of soldiers stormed towns and villages near Syria's northwest border with Turkey on Wednesday, stepping up President Bashar al-Assad's efforts to crush popular unrest and pursue army defectors, local activists said.

Security forces and armed men loyal to Assad, fired machineguns randomly as they swept into at least 10 villages and towns in Jabal al-Zawiya from a nearby highway, after blocking access to the region and cutting off communications.

"There are casualties but no way yet to ascertain the numbers because it is difficult to communicate," one local activist said.

Assad faces Western outrage and tougher rhetoric from Turkey but no U.N. Security Council action over a ferocious military campaign to stop a six-month uprising demanding political freedoms and an end to his family's autocratic rule.

Support from Russia and China, which have oil concessions in Syria and want to limit the spread of Western influence in the Middle East, have helped frustrate a Western-led U.N. resolution for sanctions on Assad and the ruling hierarchy.

International rights groups, Western and Arab diplomats and local activists cite many more mass arrests in the last two weeks, including of wounded protesters in hospitals, more assassinations of street protest leaders, as well as more activists being reported tortured to death in prison.

The latest activist to die in prison was 25-year-old Ghayath Mater, whom Washington said was killed by the authorities for his "brave commitment to confronting the regime's despicable violence with peaceful protest."

Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador in Syria, paid condolences at Matar's wake in the Damascus suburb of Daraya this week, together with the ambassadors of Britain and France.

Syrian authorities rarely comment on specific killings, but they have denied reports of suspected torture in the past and said arrests are only made in accordance with the constitution.

NORTHWEST ASSAULT, TURKEY

In the northwest, the assault in Jabal al-Zawiya followed a major sweep this week on al-Ghab Plain, farmland to its south that has seen regular protests and serves as a supply line for army deserters.

At least 26 villagers have been killed by troops in the last 72 hours in al-Ghab, local activists said.

Most of the deserters, who are estimated to number in the hundreds, are from the Sunni Muslim rank and file, which is dominated by an officer corps from Syria's minority Alawite sect, to which Assad and the ruling hierarchy belong.

Lacking an organized command and access to weapons to match Assad's core forces, many of the deserters have tried to flee to Turkey, residents and local activists say.

Turkey has kept the border open with Syria and has not stopped thousands of refugees who have crossed into its territory to escape the intensifying military assaults on numerous villages and towns in the northwest.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that neither he nor the Syrian people believe Assad any longer because he has failed to carry out democratic reforms.

"As civilian deaths increase in Syria we see that reforms have not materialized and they did not speak honestly. It is not possible to believe this. And the Syrian people do not believe in Assad, nor do I. We also do not believe him," Erdogan said in a speech in Cairo to set out Turkey's vision of the Middle East.

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