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Armed residents fight off Syrian government troops

Battle is first in 2-month-old popular revolt

By Zeina Karam
Associated Press / May 31, 2011

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BEIRUT — Residents used automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades to repel advancing government troops in central Syria yesterday, putting up a fierce fight for the first time in their 2-month-old revolt against President Bashar Assad’s autocratic regime.

The escalation raised fears the popular uprising may be moving toward a Libya-style armed conflict.

Until now, the opposition against Assad has taken the form of peaceful protests by unarmed demonstrators, though authorities have claimed, without offering solid proof, that it was being led by armed gangs and propelled by foreign conspiracies.

Activists said residents of the towns of Talbiseh and Rastan, which have been under attack since Sunday in central Homs Province, decided to fight back with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and at least four civilians were killed.

“They felt that they cannot sit back anymore and pray for God to help them,’’ said one Homs resident. He, like all residents contacted, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Another two bodies were found early yesterday in the area of Bab Amro cemetery, raising the death toll from the two-day crackdown in the country’s turbulent heartland to 15, said the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, which helps organize and document the protests. State media said four soldiers were killed.

“The army is facing armed resistance and is not able to enter the two towns,’’ the Homs resident said.

A second activist confirmed residents had fought back, but said it involved individual residents protecting themselves, as opposed to an organized armed resistance with an overall command structure.

Homs has seen some of the biggest demonstrations against Assad since protests broke out in southern Syria in March and spread across the country. What began as a disparate movement demanding reforms has erupted into a resilient uprising seeking Assad’s ouster. Rights groups say more than 1,000 people have been killed in the crackdown, which has drawn condemnation and sanctions from the United States and European Union.

Yesterday’s accounts were the first credible reports of serious resistance by residents taking up arms. Details coming out of Syria are sketchy because the government has placed severe restrictions on the media and expelled foreign reporters.

Syrian troops, backed by tanks, have been conducting operations in Talbiseh, Rastan, and the nearby town of Teir Maaleh since Sunday.

“The situation is completely hopeless,’’ said a resident of Rastan reached by telephone who said he was barricaded in his home.

Rights activist Mustafa Osso said troops have detained hundreds of people since Sunday in Homs Province.

Syria’s state-run news agency said four soldiers were killed and 14 wounded in Talbiseh.

Assad’s use of the military signals he is determined to crush the revolt, despite US and European sanctions.

In Geneva, the UN’s top human rights official said yesterday that the brutality and magnitude of repression in Syria and Libya against antigovernment protests is “shocking.’’

Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged the Syrian government to allow a UN fact-finding mission to visit the country.

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