Syrian activists voiced growing fears yesterday of a new assault like the one that devastated the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr, on the eve of a first visit by new international envoy Kofi Annan.
Troop reinforcements backed by tanks were massing in the northwestern province of Idlib, close to the Turkish border, in a bid to root out rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army, activists and a human rights watchdog said.
Ahead of his departure for Damascus today, former UN head Annan spoke out strongly against any foreign arming of the rebels, prompting Washington to echo his concerns about the dangers of further militarization of the conflict in multi-confessional, multi-ethnic Syria.
Opposition activists used their “Syrian Revolution 2011” Facebook page to call demonstrations in solidarity with the long-oppressed Kurdish minority, who have been largely sidelined by the protest movement against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite-dominated regime led by Syria’s Sunni Arab majority.
Armored units were deploying heavily around Idlib Province’s Jabal al-Zawiya hill district, where rebel fighters have been active, said Milad Fadl, a member of the opposition Syrian Revolution General Commission.
“Large numbers of residents from eight villages in that area have fled,” Fadl said, adding that people were also leaving the city of Idlib itself.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the army had launched an assault yesterday on four villages in agricultural areas of the province and was hunting down rebels in the region.
There are concerns that Idlib could suffer the same fate as the Baba Amr neighborhood of the central city of Homs, which was stormed by government troops last Thursday after a month of shelling.
On Wednesday, UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos briefly visited the battered neighborhood with a Syrian Red Crescent team.
“She says that the parts they saw were completely devastated,” her spokeswoman Amanda Pitt said. “She said Homs feels like a city that has been completely closed down.”
State news agency SANA said “armed terrorist gangs” were looting and destroying property in towns and villages in Idlib Province.
It added that security forces had defused four bombs planted by “terrorist groups” in the Idlib town of Sarakeb.
The Britain-based Observatory said 16 people were killed in violence nationwide on Thursday, all of them civilians. The watchdog said that two more civilians died of previous injuries.
Early yesterday, security-force gunfire killed one civilian in the Damascus neighborhood of Kafar Soussa, it added.
In their Facebook page posting, opposition activists called for a nationwide day of solidarity with the Kurdish minority, as they prepare to celebrate their New Year festival Nowruz, which has long been the focus of nationalist sentiment, in Syria, as in neighboring Iraq and Turkey.
Speaking in Cairo ahead of his departure for Damascus, Annan urged “the Syrian opposition to come together to work with us to find a solution that will respect the aspirations of the Syrian people.”
He warned against further militarization of the crisis, amid a groundswell of international support for arming the rebels. The mostly army defectors who make up the Free Syrian Army are heavily outgunned by the regime forces they are battling in a number of flashpoint areas, including Idlib.
“I believe further militarization will make the situation worse,” Annan said after talks with Arab League head Nabil al-Arabi.
“I hope that no one is very seriously thinking of using force in this situation,” he said, adding that diplomatic efforts should be kept up.
Later on Thursday, Washington, which had previously revealed it was looking at the possility of providing “non-lethal” aid to the rebels, echoed his warning about the dangers of further militarization.
“We have made very clear that we do not believe that it is right at this time to contribute to the further militarization of the situation in Syria,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
“We are pursuing a path with the Friends of Syria that we hope will bring a political resolution to the situation there,” he added, referring to an international coalition opposed to Assad’s continued rule.
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