Syrian troops and tanks storm two 'rebel' towns

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The Independent Online

Tanks launched a volley of shells and machine-gun fire during an assault on two central Syrian towns yesterday where large-scale protests have been held against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Armoured vehicles and troops stormed the towns of Talbiseh and Rastan, raking houses with fire and killing at least three people.

The towns were surrounded by the army in the early hours of yesterday morning. In Talbiseh, about six miles from the central Syrian city of Homs, civilians were seized from their beds after tanks shelled the town and soldiers swept through the streets. Just a few miles further north in Rastan, the town was encircled by troops who then opened fire.

"Rastan's main clinic is full of wounded people and there is no way to get them to a hospital. Tanks are all around the town and they are firing heavily," said one witness, a lawyer who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

On Friday, there had been a large demonstration in Rastan, a town of about 80,000 people, with protesters calling on Mr Assad to step down.

Internet, water, electricity and mobile links had been cut prior to the dawn raids – a regular occurrence before military operations. "The government is disrupting internet access across the country," said Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian human rights activist based in the US. "They don't want people uploading videos on to YouTube."

In nearby Homs, which was shelled by the army earlier this month, troops have been occupying the main city square to prevent demonstrators taking the city. Speaking to The Independent yesterday, one man from Homs said: "I can hear the sound of machine gun fire now. The streets around the city are empty. People can't move around easily from place to place and 90 per cent of the stores are closed."

Rastan and Talbiseh are the latest towns to come under attack by the Syrian military, as Mr Assad tries to get a grip on a nationwide uprising which began 10 weeks ago in the southern city of Deraa. Since then more than 1,000 civilians have been killed and countless more arrested, according to human rights groups. Many have been beaten, tortured and held for weeks without charge at interrogation centres.

Demonstrators are now trying to use new tactics in a bid to outsmart the regime, with organisers calling for night marches to avoid army snipers. The tactics have been used before in various cities, but in recent days activists have used Facebook to demand they be rolled out on a more regular basis.

The change in tack comes days after the death of Hamza al-Khatib, a 13-year-old boy from Deraa who was arrested last month and died in custody. His tortured and mutilated body was later returned to his family, while images of his corpse were then broadcast on satellite television. His case has now attracted widespread publicity, with tens of thousands of people signing-up to Facebook pages created in his honour.

Razan Zaitouna, a Syrian human rights lawyer, said: "The death of Hamza was considered a very serious escalation by the authorities, as they killed and tortured a child. Everyone has considered it a message from the regime to all the Syrian people."