AMMAN (Reuters) – Heavy gunfire was heard in the Syrian border town of Tel Kelakh on Sunday, residents said, and authorities in neighboring Lebanon tightened security after hundreds fled from Syrian troops deployed to crush protests.
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.
Hundreds fled across the frontier on Saturday, when activists said three Tel Kelakh residents were killed in shooting. A Lebanese security official said on Sunday border patrols had increased “to prevent illegal entry.”
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 700 people have been killed by security forces, and imposed targeted sanctions on Syrian officials.
Assad lifted a 48-year state of emergency but also sent the army into the protest centers. With neither side emerging with a clear victory after more than eight weeks of unrest, the government promised on Friday to launch talks.
“The authorities say they want national dialogue and they conduct it with tanks,” a woman who fled the porous border to the Lebanese side told Al Jazeera television.
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 four Syrians taking part in an anti-Israel rally on the Syrian side of the occupied Golan Heights frontier on Sunday.
Israeli media reports said the incident occurred after dozens of Palestinian refugees infiltrated the Israeli-occupied side of the frontier from Syria during a demonstration to mark what Arabs call the “Nakba,” or catastrophe, of Israel’s founding in 1948.
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 maintaining 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 a hospital roof.
A woman from Tel Kelakh died of her wounds on Sunday, bringing the death toll from the violence there to four in the last two days.
Hundreds, mainly women and children, had fled into Lebanon, including at least seven who were wounded and transferred to hospital.
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 on Sunday.
Opposition leader Riad Seif, who was arrested earlier this month, was released on 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.
“Syria is witnessing an awakening. The mass national movement for democratic change is calling for fundamental reform to end repression and single party rule,” the statement said.