Syrian armored columns stormed a rugged region near the border with Turkey on Wednesday in an expansion of a major military thrust into the northwest of the country to quell pro-democracy protests and pursue army defectors, local activists said.
They said hundreds of troops, accompanied by dozens of armored vehicles and buses carrying security forces and armed men loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, fired heavy machine guns randomly as they swept into at least 10 villages and towns in Jabal al-Zawiya from a nearby highway, after blocking off entrances to the region and cutting off communications.
Arab League states on Tuesday called for “immediate change” in Syria and an end to the violence after months of a government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters opposed to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
The Syrian leadership must also start a national dialogue to resolve the conflict, foreign ministers said in a statement at the end of a meeting in Cairo.
“The current situation in Syria is still very serious and an immediate change has to happen in order to stop the bloodshed and prevent people facing more violence,” they said.
The ministers urged the Syrian authorities to implement measures agreed on during a visit by Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elarby to Damascus last week, especially stopping all violent acts.
Elaraby told reporters that in Damascus, he had discussed with Assad a ceasefire, the release of political detainees and allowing an Arab League fact-finding mission to visit the country. He said Assad had been “responsive” but gave no more details.
The statement made no mention of a resolution rejecting U.S. unilateral sanctions against Damascus that had been circulated in draft form at the meeting.
Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, chairing the meeting, said Arab states hoped the Syrian conflict could be solved internally or among Arab states rather than by international intervention.
The United States, which has imposed limits on trade with Syria under its 2004 Syria Accountability Act, has stepped up sanctions to include Assad, several aides and businesses.
Syrian government forces shot dead five mourners on Tuesday when they fired at a funeral for villagers killed the day before near Hama, local activists said.
Security police snipers began shooting from the roof of a school and a municipal water tank in the town of Kfar Nubouzeh, when hundreds of mourners began chanting slogans demanding Assad's downfall, activists in contact with residents said.
One activists said Kfar Nubouzeh was among the regions hardest hit by the assaults because it is the hometown of Hama's attorney general, who announced his defection 10 days ago and has not been heard from since.
The military operation focused on villages and towns north of Hama and on the al-Ghab Plain, farmland to the east.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that, as of Monday, a total of 2,600 people had been killed in the Syrian government’s crackdown.
But senior Assad aide Bouthaina Shaaban said on a visit to Moscow that 1,400 people had died since the demonstrations erupted in mid-March –half of them security force personnel and half of them “rebels.”
Damascus has consistently maintained that the protests are the work of armed groups, rejecting the reports of Western embassies and human rights groups that the great majority of those killed have been unarmed civilians.