Syria launches huge sweep on protesters: activists
Syria launched a massive military operation Wednesday against anti-regime protesters in the northwest, activists said, as Russia warned "terrorists" could rise to power should the government collapse.
Undaunted by a deadly crackdown on demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad, protesters have vowed to hit the streets en masse Thursday to mark six months since the revolt broke out with pro-reform rallies.
"Six months. More than ever determined to (continue) the March 15 uprising," activists wrote on Facebook page The Syrian Revolution 2011, one of the main engines of the popular uprising.
Global and regional pressure has intensified on Syria in recent days, with the European Union planning to strengthen sanctions against Damascus, a move that could prohibit investments in its oil sector.
Russia meanwhile warned on Wednesday that "terrorist organisations" could rise to power in Syria should Assad's regime fall under pressure from the ongoing street protests.
"If the Syrian government is unable to hold on to power, there is a high probability that radicals and representatives of terrorist organisations will become entrenched," Interfax news agency quoted a top foreign ministry official as saying.
The warning came as Syrian security forces stormed villages and large swathes of the northwestern countryside, where anti-regime activists were suspected to be hiding, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Armed with heavy machine guns, the forces cut off roads leading to Jabal al-Zawiya, Baliun, Marayan, Ihsem, Al-Rami and Ablin, setting up checkpoints and arresting several people, said the Britain-based Observatory.
Ablin is the hometown of Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Harmush, the first military officer to publicly declare his desertion in early June in protest against the repression of the protest movement.
He managed to leave Syria and is currently leading the "Brigade of Free Officers", a group of dozens of officers who have deserted the regime.
Several other Syrian cities witnessed arrests Wednesday, with 15 people taken into custody in Zabadani, a day after at least 34 others were detained, activists told AFP.
They said Syrian forces were also dispatched early Wednesday to the town of Zabadani, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Damascus, a scene of massive anti-regime demonstrations on Tuesday.
In the central region of Homs, the body of a young man arrested on Saturday was handed over to his parents on Wednesday, the Observatory said.
And in the Bab al-Sebaa neighbourhood of Homs, security forces shot dead one resident in a raid on a house, it added.
State news agency SANA reported a bus driver was ambushed in the central city of Hama by an "armed terrorist group," while five soldiers and a guard who were shot dead by "armed terrorist groups" were buried in Aleppo and Homs.
Armed forces also entered Houla where a pro-regime militiaman was murdered at dawn by three unidentified men.
Damascus has consistently maintained the protests are the work of "armed gangs," rejecting reports by Western embassies and human rights groups that the great majority of those killed were unarmed civilians.
The United Nations estimates the Syrian government crackdown on protests killed 2,600, mostly civilians, since March.
State television has announced national dialogue sessions will be held as of Sunday in all provinces "to develop a programme aimed at preserving national sovereignty and respect for the freedom of citizens and the rule of law."
© 2011 AFP