Syrian army tanks 311 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/Omar Ibrahim)
AMMAN - Syrian troops shot dead 16 villagers on Wednesday, residents said, as authorities pressed on with a tank-led assault that has driven thousands of refugees across the northwest border with Turkey.
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The assault on Jabal al-Zawya, a region 35 km (22 miles) south of Turkey that has seen spreading protests against President Bashar Assad's rule, was launched overnight, a day after authorities said they would invite opponents to talks on July 10 to set up a dialogue offered by Assad.
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Opposition leaders have dismissed the offer, saying it is not credible while mass killings and arrests continue. The Local Coordination Committees, a main activists' group, said in a statement on Wednesday that 1,000 people have been arrested arbitrarily across Syria over the last week alone.
A resident of Jabal al-Zawya, a teacher who gave his name as Ziad, told Reuters by phone that among the dead were two youths in the village of Sarja.
"An eleven-year-old child is also badly wounded by random gunfire. We cannot get him out of the village for treatment because the tanks blocked all roads and troops are firing non-stop," he said.
Ammar Qarabi, president of the Syrian National Human Rights Organisation, told Reuters from exile in Cairo that at least four villagers died in the village of Rama when tanks fired machineguns on surrounding woods then on the village. Residents reported killings in other parts of the region, which is home to more than 30 villages.
"Jabal al-Zawya, was one of the first regions in Syria where people took to the street demanding the downfall of the regime. The military attacks have now reached them and they will likely result in more killings and in more refugees to Turkey," said Qarabi, who is from the northwestern province of Idlib.
He said he based his information on several witnesses' testimony. Syria has banned most international media, making it difficult to independently verify accounts of violence.
A resident of Jabal al-Zawya said he heard large explosions overnight around the villages of Rama and Orum al-Joz, west of the highway linking the cities of Hama and Aleppo.
"My relatives there say the shelling is random and that tens of people have been arrested," he said.
Another resident said 30 tanks rolled into Jabal al-Zawya on Monday from the village of Bdama on the Turkish border, where troops broke into houses and burnt crops.
Rights campaigners say Assad's troops, security forces and gunmen have killed over 1,300 civilians since the uprising for political freedom erupted in the southern Hauran Plain in March, including over 150 people killed in a scorched earth campaign against towns and villages in Idlib.
They say scores of troops and police were also killed for refusing to fire on civilians. Syrian authorities say more than 500 soldiers and police died in clashes with "armed terrorist groups", whom they also blame for most civilian deaths.
Protests against Assad have been spreading despite military assaults and a fierce security crackdown, with activists expecting more students to join street demonstrations after exams end on Thursday.
Night-time demonstrations have intensified to circumvent heavy security in the day. The Local Coordination Committees said security forces shot dead one protester at a large rally on Wednesday night in Homs, 165 km north of Damascus.
Residents in Deraa, the cradle of the uprising, said tens of people were arrested in old quarter of the southern city on Wednesday, following demonstrations that reignited following a military assault two months ago led by Assad's brother Maher.
Assad said in a speech last week that he had met delegations representing most Syrians to discuss the crisis and "felt love... I have never felt at any stage of my life".
One of his advisers, Bouthaina Shaaban, told Sky News on Tuesday: "We hope that by conducting and hastening the national dialogue, we will be able to isolate any militant or violent group and work together with the international community to overcome that big problem."