AMMAN, (Reuters) – Syrian forces shot dead 20 people on Friday and flooded rural areas around Damascus with troops to try to end six months of demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad, activists said.
Despite the heavy deployment, activists reported protests on the edges of the capital, the northern province of Idlib bordering Turkey and other parts of Syria. Banners proclaimed protesters were “on course to bring down the regime.”
After storming several cities in August to crush protest centers, the Syrian army has swept through rural districts in recent weeks, hunting down activists and army defectors, carrying out widespread arrests and killing dozens of people.
State television broadcast an interview on Thursday night with one of the most prominent military deserters, appearing to recant claims made when he defected and saying he had never been ordered to fire on protesters.
It was not clear how Lieutenant-Colonel Hussein Harmoush, who announced his desertion in June, ended up back in Damascus. Turkey’s foreign ministry denied reports it had handed him over to Syrian authorities, saying it would be out of the question to return anyone against their will.
The operations in the north have led to renewed refugee flows into Turkey, Turkish officials say, and on Thursday night Syrian forces crossed 200 meters (yards) into Lebanese territory in pursuit of fugitives, according to the Lebanese army. Lebanese sources said a Lebanese man was wounded in gunfire.
Activists said most of Friday’s killings occurred in the countryside around the city of Hama and in Jabal al-Zawiya, a rugged region near Turkey, both scenes of military operations in the last week.
Protesters were also killed on the edge of Damascus, including a 12-year-old boy, and in Homs, 165 km (100 miles) to the north, the activists said.
The Local Coordination Committee, a grassroots activist group, said 27 people died on Friday, though that figure included a handful who died from wounds suffered earlier.
The United Nations says 2,600 people have been killed since Syrians rose up against Assad six months ago, inspired by revolts in North Africa which overthrew leaders of Egypt andTunisia and have now also ousted Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
The global activist organization Avaaz said on Friday it had verified the names of 3,004 Syrians killed since the violence erupted in mid-March.
“The Syrian military have either shot men, women and children at peaceful protests or tortured, mutilated and assassinated them in detention,” it said. The list included 278 army conscripts, though Avaaz did not say how they died.
Syrian authorities say 700 soldiers and police have been killed. They blame the violence on armed groups, and say another 700 civilians have also died.
The Syrian state news agency SANA said on Friday that a law enforcement officer was killed and four wounded in the southern province of Deraa when they were “fired at by armed groups.”
Most foreign media have been barred from operating in Syria making it hard to verify reports from activists and authorities.
Assad has promised reform including a multi-party parliamentary election by February, but has not said whether he would accept any challenge for his own position when his presidential term expires in 2014.
The relentless repression of dissent has triggered U.S. and European sanctions and calls for Assad to step down, but Washington and its Western allies have failed to persuade Russia and China to endorse a tough United Nations response.
The Arab League and neighboring Turkey have called for an immediate end to the bloodshed. “Those who attack their people with artillery and tanks can’t remain in power,” Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said during a visit to Libya on Friday.
President Barack Obama will meet Erdogan during the U.N. General Assembly in New York next week and discuss Syria, among other Middle East issues, the White House said.
However, regional countries have not spelled out any punitive action Assad might face, and no country is proposing the kind of NATO intervention which toppled Gaddafi. Assad also retains support from his powerful ally Iran.
Syrian troops began a big offensive last week in the countryside around Hama, which was one of the cities hit hardest by a military offensive which Assad launched in August during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
On Friday, they stormed a town near Hama, hunting for defectors, a local activist said. “They raided Hilfaya at 6:30 a.m. with troops and security police descending from buses and trucks equipped with machineguns,” he told Reuters by telephone.
“They stayed for two hours, firing at random to frighten the inhabitants. Among the six who were killed were two cousins from the al-Jammal family who were on their way to Hilfaya from the nearby village of Taybeh,” the activist said.
“Bashar, you butcher,” read a banner in Kiswa, just south of Damascus, where one protester waved an old Syrian flag dating back to the era before Assad’s Baath Party seized power nearly 50 years ago.
Assad, from the minority Alawite sect, has ruled majority Sunni Muslim Syria since 2000 when he succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad.