AMMAN (Reuters) – At least 15 Syrian tanks pushed overnight into a rural area near the Lebanese border, where security forces have concentrated their latest crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrations, human rights activists said.
The activists, who were in contact with residents, said the tanks deployed around Arida, near the Jisr al-Qomar border crossing point with northern Lebanon. Witnesses on the Lebanese side of the border told Reuters they could hear the sound of gunfire throughout the night.
Activists said Syrian troops and gunmen had entered the border town of Tel Kelakh Saturday after protests erupted against President Bashar al-Assad's autocratic rule, prompting dozens of families to flee into Lebanon.
An activists' protest group said at least seven Syrian civilians were killed Sunday when troops shelled the town and sniper fire killed another civilian Monday, raising the death toll in the army's assault since Saturday to 12.
The official Syrian state news agency said five soldiers were killed in confrontations with armed groups in Tel Kalakh.
One resident said there was intermittent shelling and machine gun fire with heavy bursts on Tel Kelakh Monday, but the army appeared not to have advanced beyond the town's outskirts.
"Tel Kelakh is a ghost town. There are no doctors. Pharmacies are shut. Snipers are on the roof of the main hospital. Phones, water and electricity are cut," Mohammad al-Dandashi told Reuters from the town through satellite phone.
A few families from another border village called Hilat streamed into Lebanon Monday as did two wounded civilians from Tel Kelakh who were seeking medical care in Lebanon, some family members said.
LEBANESE ARMY REINFORCES BORDER
Syrian soldiers and police have been trying to quell demonstrations across the country calling for Assad's overthrow for the last two months. They have tended to crack down on a flashpoint area for a few days, with tank shells, gunfire, and mass arrests, subduing it and then focusing on another area.
Troops backed by armor have now deployed in or around towns and villages across the southern Hauran plain, the central province of Homs and areas near the coast. The security grip has been also tightened in Damascus and its suburbs.
The Lebanese army said it had sent reinforcements to the border, set up checkpoints and started intensive patrols to prevent "infiltration activities on both sides."
Authorities have blamed most of the violence in the country on armed groups backed by Islamists and outside powers whom they say killed more than 120 members of the security forces.
Syrian and international rights groups say Syrian forces have killed at least 700 civilians.
International media organizations are largely banned from Syria, making it difficult to verify accounts.
Assad, who trained as an ophthalmologist, has tried a mixture of reform and repression to stem protests against his autocratic 11-year rule, which broke out in the southern city of Deraa, inspired by uprisings across the Arab world.
Authorities said Assad intends to launch national dialogue talks, a gesture rejected by opposition leaders and the main activists' protest group who say first security forces must stop shooting protesters and political prisoners must be freed.
(Additional reporting by Nazih Siddiq in Wadi Khaled, Lebanon; Editing by Peter Graff)
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