At least 23 dead as Syria violence intensifies

Activist group says death toll in 8 months of unrest against Assad close to 4,600, a quarter of whom are from Syrian security forces.

Syria protests Homs 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Syria protests Homs 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
BEIRUT - At least 23 people were reported killed in Syria on Saturday as violence intensified in the eighth month of unrest against President Bashar Assad, pushing the death toll close to 4,600, according to a leading activist group.
In a three-hour, night-time battle in the north-western city of Idlib near the Turkish border, seven members of the security forces, five army rebels and three civilians were killed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said.
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Five civilians were shot dead by security forces in central Homs province, and a man's body was returned to his family five days after he had been arrested.
The United Nations' top human rights forum has condemned Syria for "gross and systematic" violations by its forces, including executions and the imprisonment of some 14,000 people.
Syrian authorities say they are fighting foreign-backed "terrorist groups" trying to spark civil war who have killed some 1,100 soldiers and police since March.
An "Arab Spring" of revolts - triggered by an uprising in Tunisia in January - has reshaped the political landscape of the Middle East this year and toppled leaders in Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
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Syrian opposition groups say defectors from Syria's conscript army are increasing their attacks on government security forces trying to suppress revolt against 41 years of Assad family rule.
Syria faces deepening international and regional isolation, with the Arab League, the European Union and the United States piling on increasingly tough sanctions to pressure Damascus to stop the bloodshed and talk to its opponents.
China and Russia oppose sanctions and last month scuppered Western efforts to pass a UN Security Council resolution condemning Assad's government.
Syrian security forces report clashes with 'terrorists'
The state news agency SANA gave a detailed account of operations by Syrian security forces, including clashes with "terrorists", arrests, the explosion of roadside bombs and the defusing of explosive devices.
It said special forces caught dozens of wanted men in the area of Tel Kalakh who had been smuggling weapons, drugs and armed men from Lebanon into Syria.
Special forces also captured 14 gunmen who, SANA said, had been killing and kidnapping civilians and soldiers.
According to the British-based SOHR, nearly a quarter of the 4,600 on its death toll are from Syrian security forces.
In Deraa, "special forces clashed with armed terrorist groups trying to attack security centers in rural parts of the province. One of the gunmen was killed in the exchange of fire," SANA reported.
"Special forces also clashed with armed terrorists in Idlib after they tried to attack a public roads building and several security detachments. Special forces were able to kill one of the gunmen and wound a number of others. One member of the security forces was injured."
Army engineers in Hama disabled two improvised explosive devices planted in the city, the agency reported.
The SANA correspondent said a source told the agency two other IEDs had exploded, one when a security patrol was passing near a sports stadium, injuring two. The second IED explosion caused no injuries.
In Lattakia, an IED exploded in front of an electrical workshop, starting a fire in which two people died, the agency reported.