Syrian troops storm northwestern town, says activists


Syrian troops backed by tanks stormed a northwestern town yesterday in the latest of a series of pushes by regime forces into rebel-held areas, activists said.

The British-Based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees said the troops entered Saraqeb from the north and were advancing amid heavy shelling. The Observatory said that attackers were meeting strong resistance and that one civilian had been killed. 

Syria's government has been on the offensive over the past two months and has taken a number of rebel strongholds: the provincial capital and other towns in the northwestern province of Idlib that borders Turkey, the central provinces of Hama and Homs, and the eastern oil-rich region of Deir el-Zour that borders Iraq. 

Syria's rebels, who took up arms following the regime's crackdown on protesters, are outgunned by armored units loyal to President Bashar Assad but have opted for hit-and-run raids and ambushes. 

The Syrian government cites the rise in such attacks to boost its argument that the uprising is being carried out by terrorist groups acting out a foreign conspiracy. 

The LCC said the troops were accompanied by pro-government gunmen known as shabiha and plainclothes security agents who arrived in buses and started conducting raids and detaining people. Calls to the town could not get through. The government is known to cut networks in areas where operations are underway. 

Saraqeb, in the northern province of Idlib, has been held by army defectors for months. 

The attack on Saraqeb came 11 days after troops retook Idlib city, the provincial capital, which had been under rebel control for months. 

The Observatory said Syrian security forces killed six people throughout Syria today while the LCC put the death toll at seven. 

Earlier today, the Observatory and the LCC said troops fired mortar rounds at the rebel-held neighborhood of Khaldiyeh in the central city of Homs in apparent preparation to storm the area. 

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who is head of the Observatory, said the heavily-populated Khaldiyeh has been shelled since early morning. The LCC posted a video on its Facebook page showing smoke billowing from a residential area it said was in Khaldiyeh. 

The neighborhoods, one of Homs' largest, has been under rebel control for months. 

Homs has seen some of the heaviest fighting in Syria's year-long uprising. Government forces crushed a rebel stronghold in Baba Amr neighborhood on March 1. 

The Observatory said troops also barraged the town of Qalaat al-Madiq in Hama province with mortars and heavy machine guns. The government has been trying to enter the town for the past two weeks, it said.