AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian tanks shelled a hill region in the northwestern province of Idlib, residents and activists said, in a military assault to suppress protests in rural areas that have already driven thousands of refugees to Turkey.
The overnight assault was launched a day after the authorities announced they would invite opponents to talks on July 10 to set a framework for a dialogue promised by President Bashar al-Assad, who has faced criticism from Western governments over the military campaign to crush a three-month uprising against his rule.
Opposition leaders have dismissed the offer, saying it is not credible while mass killings and arrests continue.
“I can hear heavy explosions 20 km to the north, around the villages of Rama and Orum al-Joz. My relatives there say the shelling is random,” said a resident of Kin Safra village in Jabal al-Zawya region, west of the highway linking the cities of Hama and Aleppo.
Another resident said 30 tanks were transported on Monday from the village of Bdama on the Turkish border, where troops broke into houses and burned crops, to Jabal al-Zawya.
Rights campaigners say troops, security forces and gunmen loyal to Assad have killed over 1,300 civilians since the uprising for political freedom erupted in the southern Hauran Plain in March, including over 150 people killed in a scorched earth campaign against towns and villages in Idlib.
They say scores of troops and police were also killed for refusing to fire on civilians. Syrian authorities say more than 250 soldiers and police died in clashes with “armed terrorist groups,” whom they also blame for most civilian deaths.
Assad adviser Bouthaina Shaaban told Sky News: “We hope that by conducting and hastening the national dialogue, we will be able to isolate any militant or violent group and work together with the international community to overcome that big problem.”
More than 10,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey since the military assaults on Idlib began in areas nearer to the border with Turkey three weeks ago.
Opposition figure Ammar al-Qarabi, head of the Syrian National Organization for Human Rights, said the latest shelling appeared in preparation for storming Jabal al-Zawya, a region of several villages 35 km south of Turkey that has been witnessing spreading protests against Assad’s 11-year rule.
“Jabal al-Zawya was one of the first regions in Syria where people took to street demanding the downfall of the regime. The military attacks have now reached them and they will likely result in more killings and in more refugees to Turkey,” Qarabi, who is from Idlib, told Reuters by phone from Cairo.
Turkey shares an 840 km border with Syria, a mostly Sunni country ruled by a tight knit hierarchy belonging the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Islam.
Turkey and has become increasingly critical of Assad after backing him in his moves to improve ties with the West and seek a peace deal with Israel.
Assad had opened the Syrian market to Turkish goods, but Turkish container traffic to Syria fell sharply over the last month, merchants say.
Sawasiah, another Syrian rights organization headed by lawyer Mohannad al-Hassani, said a security campaign that has resulted in the arrest of more than 12,000 people across Syria since the uprising erupted in March, has intensified in the last few days.
A statement by Sawasiah said security forces arrested on Tuesday Farhad Khader Ayou, an official in the Kurdish Mustaqbal party, in the eastern province of Hasaka on Tuesday.
The statement said 17 people in the province of Raqqa to the west were arrested in the last 48 hours, adding to hundreds of people arbitrarily arrested across the country this week.
Assad’s repression of the protests has triggered Western condemnation and a gradual escalation of U.S. and European Union economic sanctions against Assad and other Syrian officials.
France’s Foreign Minister Alain Juppe will travel to Russia later this week where he will meet his Russian counterpart and discuss the Syrian impasse in the hope of convincing Moscow to change its stance on a resolution condemning Syria at the United Nations.
French foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said Paris was extremely concerned with the ongoing violence in Syria saying that “reforms and repression were not compatible.”
Valero, however, said that Syrian authorities took a positive step by allowing a meeting in Damascus on Monday of intellectuals that included several opposition figures.
“Holding such a meeting is positive and we hope it will be the departure point for a real national political dialogue that will facilitate finding a way out of the crisis,” he said.