Syrian troops assaulting a northwest town with machine gun fire and shelling have killed at least 100 people in one of the deadliest episodes of the 9-month-old uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, activists said yesterday.
Tuesday’s attack on the town of Kfar Owaid in Idlib Province showed the Syrian government was pressing ahead with its crackdown despite its agreement this week to an Arab League plan for bringing a halt to the bloodshed.
“It was an organized massacre. The troops surrounded people then killed them,” said head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdul-Rahman.
He said troops on the outskirts of the town surrounded and fired on crowds of civilians and activists trying to flee out of fear they would be detained. The group, which uses a network of local activists to collect information on the crackdown, said 111 were killed in Kfar Owaid on Tuesday.
The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, also said more than 100 people were killed. The accounts could not be independently confirmed because Syria has banned entry to most foreign journalists and places heavy restrictions on the work of local reporters.
As the bloodshed intensified, the Arab League was planning to send an advance team to Syria today to prepare for an observer mission meant to ensure the regime’s compliance with the peace plan.
The deal requires Syria to halt its crackdown, open talks with the opposition, withdraw military forces from city streets and allow in human rights workers and journalists.
The 22-member Arab League has also suspended Syria’s membership and leveled economic and diplomatic sanctions.
Assad’s regime agreed to allow the monitoring mission after Arab leaders warned they would turn to the UN Security Council to try to end the crackdown, which the UN says has killed at least 5,000 people since March.
The opposition is deeply skeptical that the agreement is anything other than a stalling tactic as international pressure on Assad grows.
The Syrian conflict, which began with peaceful protests in March, has become increasingly militarized in recent weeks, with clashes nearly every day between troops and army defectors who have joined the movement against Assad. Idlib Province has witnessed some of the most intense clashes.
On Monday, security forces killed up to 70 army defectors as they were deserting their military posts in Idlib near the Turkish border, activists said.
In Cairo, an Arab League official said an advance team would arrive in Syria tomorrow to prepare for an observer mission. The advance team will be led by the Arab League’s assistant secretary-general, Sameer Seif el-Yazal.
He said 500 observers would eventually deploy around the country in small groups of at least 10.
Syrian state TV said on Tuesday that the country’s air force, air defense units and naval forces conducted military maneuvers with warplanes, helicopters, surface-to-air and ground-to-sea missiles. The TV report, which did not say when the maneuvers were conducted, showed warplanes and helicopters firing missiles at targets in a desert area. It also showed surface-to-air missiles hitting targets in the air.
“The maneuvers aim to test the capabilities of the air force and air defense to repulse any aggression the enemies of our nations might think about,” the TV report said, which also showed special forces being dropped from helicopters.
The TV report said the drill “was similar to a real battle” and showed missiles being fired from ground to the sea.
The maneuvers come nearly two weeks after Syrian forces conducted a similar drill during which surface-to-surface missiles were fired. They appear to be meant as a deterrent against any type of international action along the lines of the NATO air campaign that helped oust former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Also Tuesday, Assad issued a new law under which anyone found guilty of distributing weapons with the aim of committing “terrorist acts” would be sentenced to death, state-run news agency SANA said.
The Syrian government claims armed gangs and terrorists are behind the uprising, not protesters seeking more freedoms under one of the most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.
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