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Syrian troops storm eastern city

Activists say anti-government protests are likely to escalate during the upcoming Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Syrian protesters carry flags and shout pro-government slogans during a rally outside the Syrian embassy in Beirut on 24 July 2011.
Syrian protesters carry flags and shout pro-government slogans during a rally outside the Syrian embassy in Beirut on 24 July 2011.
Image: AP Photo/Bilal Hussein

SYRIAN TROOPS stormed parts of an eastern city today and barraged neighbourhoods with heavy machine gun fire two days after army defectors fought with troops loyal to President Bashar Assad, activists said.

The attack is part of an intensifying government crackdown on protesters before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Activists expect anti-government demonstrations to escalate during Ramadan, which begins early in the week ahead. The raids by security forces appear to be an attempt by Assad’s regime to prevent wide-scale demonstrations when Muslims being the month of fasting from dawn to dusk.

An activist in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour said the attack on his hometown began in the afternoon and that one person was shot dead in a nearby village. Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said reinforcements consisting of about 60 vehicles reached Deir el-Zour after noon.

Abdul-Rahman gave a higher death toll, saying troops shot dead three people in the nearby village of Tibni when they tried to stop advancing troops by throwing stones.

Authorities have waged a brutal crackdown that activists say has killed more than 1,600 civilians since the protests against the Assad family’s 40-year-old rule began in mid-March.

The government has sought to discredit those behind the protests by saying they are terrorists and foreign extremists, rather than true reform-seekers.

“Intense shooting could be heard in the western parts of the city,” the activist told The associated Press by telephone. “Residents have placed barriers in the streets in order to obstruct advancing troops.”

Reinforcements

Witnesses in Deir el-Zour said yesterday that troops fought each other in the city for two days starting Thursday. Reinforcements were sent from the northern city of Raqqah Saturday, the activist said.

Deir el-Zour, the capital of a province that carries the same name, is oil-rich but is also one of the country’s poorest areas. The tribal region, which borders Iraq, has been witnessing intense protests calling for the downfall of Assad’s regime.

Last week, Assad fired and replaced the governor of Deir el-Zour after massive anti-government demonstrations in the area. Activists say Samir al-Sheik, who was a Damascus-based police brigadier general, was chosen to try to put an end to protests in the region.

The Deir el-Zour raid came after a night attack on a suburb of the capital, Damascus, and the eastern city of al-Boukamal on the border with Iraq.

The Syrian observatory said four people were killed during a raid on the Damascus suburb of Kiswah Friday night. It also said that one person was killed when troops entered al-Boukamal.

The observatory said the deaths in Kiswah and al-Boukamal raised Friday’s death toll to 12.

Mohammed Abdullah, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees, which track the protests in Syria, said at least six people were killed in the Kiswah raid. He said at least 22 were killed Friday.

Ammar Qurabi, who heads the National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria, said 19 people were killed on Friday, including three in Kiswah and two in al-Boukamal.

It was not clear why the numbers were different but each group is known to have its own sources throughout Syria.

Tens of thousands of protesters calling for the ouster of Assad’s regime took to the streets throughout Syria Friday, urging fellow citizens who have remained on the sidelines to join them.

The observatory said Saturday that 1,888 people have been killed since the uprising began, including 1,519 civilians. It said the rest were members of the military and security forces.

The observatory is known to be more conservative about the numbers of people killed. Other groups such as Qurabi’s NOHRS and the LCC put the death toll among civilians well above 1,600.

The uprising has been the most serious threat to the 40-year ruling dynasty of the Assad family.

Assad, who inherited power in 2000 after the death of his father, President Hafez Assad, has made a series of overtures to try to ease the growing outrage. He lifted the decades-old emergency laws that gave the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge, granted Syrian nationality to thousands of Kurds — a long-ostracised minority — and issued several pardons.

- AP

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