AMMAN (Reuters) - At least seven Syrian civilians were killed Sunday when Syrian troops shelled the town of Tel Kelakh near the border with Lebanon to quell a pro-democracy uprising, an activists’ protest group said.
The town, just a few miles (km) from Lebanon’s northern border, is the latest focus of an intensified crackdown by Syrian troops and tanks, sent to quell demonstrations against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.
The shelling on Tel Telakh concentrated on al-Burj, Ghalioun, Souk and Mahata neighborhood, the Local Coordination Committees said in a statement, adding wounded people had little access to care because the main hospital in the town was sealed by security forces and the main road to Lebanon blocked.
Authorities in neighboring Lebanon tightened security after hundreds fled from Syrian troops deployed to crush protests on Saturday, when activists said three Tel Kelakh residents were killed in shooting. A Lebanese security official said Sunday border patrols had increased “to prevent illegal entry.”
A resident who had fled the town told Lebanese television that the knife wielding Assad loyalists, known as the “shabbiha” accompanied the army and security police in their sweep on neighborhoods in the town.
International media is largely banned from Syria, making it difficult to verify independent, or official accounts.
Assad has tried a mixture of reform and repression to stem protests against his autocratic 11-year rule, which broke out two months ago in the southern city of Deraa, inspired by uprisings across the Arab world.
The United States and European Union have condemned Assad’s crackdown, in which rights groups say about 850 people have been killed, and imposed targeted sanctions on Syrian officials.
Assad lifted a 48-year state of emergency but also sent the army into the protest centres. With neither side emerging with a clear victory after more than eight weeks of unrest, the government promised Friday to launch talks.
The Local Coordination Committees rejected Sunday what the information minister had termed as a “national dialogue” proposed by Assad, saying the authorities must stop shooting of protesters first.
“The peaceful demonstrations and civic disobedience will continue ... It is morally and politically unacceptable to have national dialogue before stopping all forms of killings and violence against peaceful protesters ... lifting the siege on cities and releasing all political prisoners,” the group said in a statement sent to Reuters.
A woman who fled the porous border to the Lebanese side told Al Jazeera television: “The authorities say they want national dialogue and they conduct it with tanks.”
Officials say the army has been deployed to counter “armed terrorist groups” backed by Islamists and outside powers who are responsible for most of the violence, during which 120 soldiers and police have been killed.
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 in the coast. The security grip has been also tightened in Damascus and its suburbs.
In a rare incident on Syria’s frontline with Israel, state television said Israeli forces killed two people taking part in an anti-Israel rally on the Syrian side of the occupied Golan Heights frontier Sunday.
Since coming to power on his father’s death in 2000, Assad has reinforced Syria’s alliance with Iran and continued to back militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, while holding indirect peace talks with Israel and staying quiet on the Golan Heights.
Tel Kelakh resident Mohammad al-Dandashi said in a telephone call he had counted the sound of 85 tank shells fired since Saturday. “They seem to be random and not targeting a particular neighborhood,” he said as the sound of heavy gunfire could be heard in the background.
“They are punishing us for demonstrating against the regime,” he said, adding that nearly 20 soldiers could be seen on the main hospital’s roof.
A woman from Tel Kelakh died of her wounds Sunday, bringing the death toll from the violence there to 11 in the last two days.
Across the country, diplomats and activists say 7,000 people have been arrested since the protests broke out. Authorities say thousands have also surrendered and been released under an amnesty which expired Sunday.
Opposition leader Riad Seif, who was arrested earlier this month, was released Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that thousands of political prisoners remained in jail.
In their first statement since the protests erupted, 12 Kurdish parties said authorities needed to stop using violence against peaceful protesters.
Syria’s main Kurdish parties said the authorities must take concrete steps to end repression and transform Syria into a democracy to solve the nation’s political crisis, joining mainstream opposition demands.
Editing by Dominic Evans and Matthew Jones