BEIRUT (Reuters) - Four Syrian soldiers were shot dead on Monday as they tried to escape a military camp and troops sealed off towns in a continuing crackdown on opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, activists said.
The military campaign has focused on towns and villages north of the city of Homs, where increasing numbers of defectors have been organizing and mounting guerrilla raids on roadblocks manned by troops and gunmen loyal to Assad.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, said the four soldiers were killed by military police when they tried to flee their post in the northern province of Idlib, which borders Turkey. Another seven soldiers were arrested.
In the town of Rastan, north of Homs, three people were injured when troops opened fire with heavy machine guns mounted on tanks surrounding the town, which lies on the main northern highway leading to Turkey, residents said.
Faced with expanding street protests demanding an end to 41 years of Assad family rule, the president has sent troops and tanks into cities and towns across the country.
The military crackdown has killed at least 2,700 people, including 100 children, according to the United Nations. Syrian authorities say 700 police and army have been killed during the unrest which they blame on “terrorists” and “mutineers.”
In Homs, a professor at the university’s architecture faculty and an officer at a military science college were shot dead in separate attacks, the Syrian Observatory said. One activist said he believed the men were killed by opposition gunmen because of their support for the government.
Syria has barred most foreign media, making it difficult to verify accounts by authorities and activists.
The domestic turmoil and Western sanctions have taken a sharp toll on the economy, which the International Monetary Fund has forecast will shrink 2 percent this year -- a sharp revision from a previous estimate of 3 percent growth.
The government is planning to raise spending in next year’s budget by nearly 60 percent to $27 billion, with more than a quarter of that money going on social support including energy and agriculture subsidies, the state news agency said.
It gave few details and did not say where the funding for the extra spending would come from. Businessmen say authorities have banned most imports except for raw materials and grains in an effort to preserve foreign currency reserves.
In Washington, the State Department said the continuing crackdown was changing the dynamic of the Syrian protests.
“It’s not surprising, given the level of violence over the past months, that we’re now seeing...members of the opposition begin to use violence against the military as an act of self-preservation,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a news briefing.
Toner said the opposition had shown “extraordinary restraint” in the face of government repression, but that such restraint may not last much longer.
“The longer the regime continues to repress, kill and jail these peaceful activists, the more likely that this peaceful movement is going to become violent,” Toner said. “These are unarmed protesters. They remain unarmed for the large part. But...the dynamic is changing due to this continued violence.”
Assad’s crackdown has also prompted rebukes from Syria’s powerful northern neighbor Turkey, once of his main backers.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told CNN in an interview broadcast on Sunday that Assad will be ousted “sooner or later” by his own people.
“You can never remain in power through cruelty. You can never stand before the will of the people,” Erdogan said.
Assad has said foreign powers are using the unrest to divide Syria, and added any state would use similar techniques to end a revolt.
State news agency SANA said authorities found weapons, explosives and ammunition, including 10,000 bullets, in Nasib village close to the border with Jordan.
A Nasib resident told Reuters security forces arrested at least 20 people in the village, where hundreds had protested against Assad the previous night.
SANA also said officials in Homs found weapons, explosives, ammunition and stolen military uniforms in a car. Some of the weapons were Israeli, it said, without giving details.
Syria remains formally at war with Israel, which occupied the Golan Heights during the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.
Homs, together with Idlib, has traditionally provided the bulk of majority Sunni conscripts in the military, which is led by officers from Assad’s minority Alawite sect.
The two regions have been the scene of some of the biggest street protests against Assad in the last few weeks.
Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Oliver Holmes in Beirut; Editing by Robert Woodward and Roger Atwood