Syrian troops enter border town, hundreds detained

July 17, 2011 - 3:59 AM
Mideast Lebanon Syria

Lebanese protesters shout slogans as they carry banners in Arabic that read:

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops backed by tanks stormed a town Sunday near the border with Lebanon as security forces rounded up more than 500 people, including a leading opposition figure, across the country over the past two days, activists said.

Syria-based rights activist Mustafa Osso said government forces entered the town of Zabadani, some 25 miles (40 kilometers) northwest of Damascus, early Sunday after surrounding it a day earlier. Zabadani has witnessed a string of protests calling for the downfall of President Bashar Assad's regime since the uprising began against the Assad family's more than 40-year rule in mid-March.

The Local Coordinating Committees, which help organize and track the protests, said some 2,000 members of the military and security agencies stormed Zabadani after cutting the town's telephone services, Internet connections and electricity.

Activists say the government crackdown has killed some 1,600 people since March, most of them unarmed protesters. But the regime disputes the toll and blames a foreign conspiracy for the unrest, saying religious extremists — not true reform-seekers — are behind it.

Major operations in border areas have been common in the past four months as the government has tried to snuff out the uprising with a mix of concessions and brute force. The military has conducted operations in the southern city of Daraa on the border with Jordan, the northwestern province of Idlib bordering Turkey and the town of Talkalakh near Lebanon.

Witnesses said Saturday that security forces opened fire on anti-government protesters in the eastern border town of al-Boukamal near Iraq's border, killing at least one protester and wounding others.

Osso said some 100 soldiers defected and joined the protesters in al-Boukamal late Saturday. He said protesters and the soldiers marched in the streets chanting "people and the army are the same."

The government has banned most foreign media and restricted local coverage, making it difficult to independently confirm accounts on the ground.

Osso said authorities have detained more than 500 people since Friday, when Syrians across the country turned out for the largest protests since the revolt began.

Syrian authorities also detained leading opposition figure Ali Abdullah after a raid on his home in the Damascus suburb of Qatana Sunday morning, his son Mohammad said. Abdullah, 61, was released following a pardon on May 30 after four years in jail.

Abdullah is a writer and a member of the Damascus Declaration opposition group.

Mohammad Abdullah said his father had a heart attack last month and underwent heart surgery three weeks ago. Security forces were originally looking for Abdullah's second son, Omar, who was not at home at the time of the raid.

Omar Abdullah, a 26-year-old student, was released three months ago after being jailed for five years for blogging, Mohammad Abdullah said. He added that his brother had not been politically active since his release.

As soldiers took away Ali Abdullah, they told his family that "he will be back if we get Omar," Mohammad Abdullah said by telephone from Washington, citing family in Syria.

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Bassem Mroue at http://twitter.com/bmroue