Syrian army raids another city as outrage mounts
AFP, Wednesday 10 Aug 2011
As the Syrian troops leave Hama, a new operation is launched in the Idlib province

Syrian troops launched a vast operation on Wednesday in Idlib province bordering Turkey and killed at least one person, activists said, amid growing outrage over the regime's crackdown on dissent.

A defiant President Bashar al-Assad pledged to pursue a relentless battle against "terrorist groups," seemingly oblivious to the mounting international pressure to stop the use of deadly force against pro-democracy protesters.

Troops stormed the city of Sermin in Idlib, with an initial toll of one dead, Rami Abdel Rahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"A woman was killed and three other people were wounded in the city of Sermin, where Syrian forces launched a broad military campaign on Wednesday morning," he told AFP.

Abdel Rahman said earlier that security forces were using heavy machine guns in Sermin, leaving "10 wounded four of them in critical condition."

Explosions and heavy gunfire also echoed in the eastern oil hub of Deir Ezzor, Abdel Rahman said, adding that residents fear a new military operation in the city where the army killed 42 people on Sunday and 17 on Tuesday.

The authorities have blamed "outlaws," "saboteurs" and "armed terrorist groups" for the violence that has swept Syria since mid-March, while world powers have accused Syria of violently repressing pro-democracy protesters.

On Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu delivered a message saying Ankara has "run out of patience," while his Egyptian counterpart Mohammed Amr warned that Syria was "heading to the point of no return."

Amr was due in Turkey on Wednesday after Davutoglu's visit on Tuesday, when he asked Assad to end the bloodshed and implement democratic reforms.

Brazil, India and South Africa have all stepped into the diplomatic fray, dispatching envoys to Damascus to seek a solution to the crisis and end the bloody crackdown that has claimed more than 2,000 lives since mid-March.

Briefing them, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem echoed Assad, saying security forces are confronting "terrorist groups."

"Certain Syrian cities are under the grip of armed terrorist groups ... (and) troops have been deployed to such cities to restore stability and security," he said.

"Syria is facing foreign interference and wide-spread media provocation seeking to pressure its independent political decisions which stand in the way of foreign agendas," he said.

As troops were reportedly deploying in Sermin, dozens of military vehicles packed with soldiers streamed out of the flashpoint protest hub Hama in central Syria after completing a 10-day operation.

An AFP correspondent saw the soldiers leave as she toured Hama with other journalists on a government-sponsored visit.

"The army units have gone back to their barracks after having accomplished their mission, and residents, happy to be rid of the armed gangs who tried to sow discord among the population, have returned home," a high-ranking army officer said.

That was confirmed by Turkey's ambassador to Damascus who visited the city, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.

"Our ambassador went to Hama and said that the tanks, security forces had started to leave Hama. This is highly important to show that our initiatives had positive results," Erdogan said in Ankara.

Troops backed by tanks stormed Hama on July 31, the eve of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, to fight "armed groups," killing 100 people in the single bloodiest day since the crackdown began, activists say.

The bloodshed triggered a deluge of international condemnation and prompted the UN Security Council, under pressure from European and US leaders, to issue a statement demanding an end to the violence.

Russia, a traditional ally of Syria and armourer to Damascus, backed the statement after refusing to endorse a tougher formal resolution, and has since urged Syria to comply and engage in reform.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reaffirmed Moscow's position during a phone call with his counterpart Walid Muallem, stressing the "priority of ending violence and continuing efforts to conduct comprehensive political, social and economic reforms in Syria without delay," a statement said.

US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland highlighted the toughening US and international stance.

"It is deeply regrettable that President Assad does not seem to be hearing the increasingly loud voice of the international community, a voice of concern that is now growing in strength, in volume and in number of countries making their views known," Nuland said in Washington.

Gulf Cooperation Council nations Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait have all recalled their ambassadors to Damascus for consultations.

Al-Azhar -- Sunni Islam's top authority -- and the 22-member Arab League have also urged Syria to rein in the security forces, with Al-Azhar saying the situation "has gone too far."

But Assad dug his heels in on Tuesday, saying: "We will not waver in our pursuit of terrorist groups," state news agency SANA reported.