Syria Presses Population-center Assault

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SARAQEB, Syria, Aug. 12 (UPI) — Syria pressed its assault on northwestern and population centers Friday, dissidents and residents said, as activists vowed mass demonstrations.

Tanks and armored personnel carriers were seen in Saraqeb, a city of 37,000 in the northwestern Idlib province bordering Turkey that has seen an upsurge in military brutality in recent days, residents said.

Activists used Twitter to promote a mass rally in Idlib, with calls for an overthrow of the Assad regime.

Heavy machine-gun fire was heard and large-caliber shells were seen in restive areas near the central city of Homs, under the grip of security forces and troops since mid-March, shortly after the popular uprising against President Bashar Assad began.

Troops fired machine guns randomly and arrested scores of people in house-to-house pre-dawn raids, forging through areas previously spared the bloody onslaught, dissidents and residents said.

Armed militiamen known as shabiha, loyal to the government, burned and looted houses and shops. Earlier, mosques were closed and calls for prayer banned, Britain’s The Guardian reported.

Tanks and armored vehicles returned to Deir al-Zour, in Syria’s oil- and gas-producing region, the scene of a bloody pre-dawn offensive Sunday that included snipers positioned on rooftops picking off “anything that moves,” said the activist Local Coordination Committees, an umbrella group based in Beirut that helps organize and document protests across Syria.

Mass protests had been staged in Deir al-Zour, with hundreds of thousands in the streets.

Forces were also reported in Nawa in the south, defined as the city in which the biblical figure Job lived and the burial place of Shem, the son of Noah.

The number of dead Friday was unconfirmed, but at least 10 people were reported killed in the crackdown Thursday and more than 400 were reported killed across the country since Assad launched his unyielding offensive July 31 on the eve of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends Aug. 29.

More than 2,000 people have been killed since the uprising began, rights advocates said.

Protesters pledged defiance in demonstrations Friday, calling the rebellions a day of “not kneeling.”

“We only kneel before God,” said a message posted on the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page, which has more than 252,000 supporters, a United Press International Review found.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Thursday urged other nations to increase pressure on Assad, suggesting in an interview with CBS News that China and India impose energy sanctions and Russia stop selling it arms. Damascus has bought arms from Moscow for decades.

Asked why Washington had not yet called for Assad to step down, Clinton said the administration wanted other nations first to add their condemnation.

“It’s important that it’s not just the American voice,” she said. “And we want to make sure those voices are coming from around the world.”

The White House is poised to call on Assad to give up power, administration officials said Wednesday.

Forty-one former members of the ruling Baath Party called this week for an end to the crackdown, warning the country would face “catastrophic results” otherwise.

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