- Associated Press - Thursday, August 11, 2011

BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian army shot dead at least five people in a western town near the Lebanese border Thursday and stormed a northwestern town near Turkey’s border, activists said.

The shooting in the town of Qusair also wounded 16 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Damascus-based Abdul-Karim Rihawi, head of the Syrian Human Rights League, said seven people were killed. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the discrepancy in the death toll.

Anti-government protests are common in Qusair and, combined with the early-morning assault on the town of Saraqeb near the Turkish border, reflected the determination of President Bashar Assad to crush the 5-month-old uprising despite mounting international condemnation.

The United States imposed new sanctions on Wednesday, and a flurry of foreign diplomats have rolled through Damascus urging Mr. Assad to end a campaign of killing that rights groups say has left about 1,700 dead since mid-March. Turkey’s foreign minister, a day after meeting with Mr. Assad, on Wednesday renewed his condemnation of the attacks.

A U.S.-based international human rights groups released a report Wednesday night accusing Syrian authorities of targeting medical facilities, health workers and their patients. It called on the government to safeguard doctors’ obligations to provide neutral and ethical care for civilians.

The organization Physicians for Human Rights said security forces control access to hospitals, and many injured civilians in need of critical care are forgoing treatment because they fear being detained and tortured if they seek care at government-controlled medical facilities.

“In addition to the widely reported atrocities committed by the government, PHR has received reports of serious violations of medical neutrality in Syria,” a statement by the group said.

It also quoted a group of Syrian physicians as saying 134 doctors either have been detained by the government or have disappeared.

The attack on Saraqeb is particularly noteworthy because it sits in Idlib, a province bordering Turkey. Intense protests in the area triggered a harsh government response, forcing hundreds of Syrians to flee across the border. The military on Wednesday said it withdrew from residential districts in the area and returned to its barracks.

Troops detained at least 100 people in Saraqeb, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Explosions and gunfire reverberated through the area after the army rolled in, said the Local Coordination Committees, an activist group that helps organize and document the protests.

The military action came a day after the Information Ministry ferried local journalists to Idlib. A senior army officer told reporters that troops were withdrawing to their barracks, leaving residential districts in the province’s cities.

On the same day, Syrian security forces shot dead at least 15 people in the central flashpoint city of Homs, according to the LCC.

The government justified its attacks on various cities by saying it was dealing with terrorist gangs and criminals who were fomenting unrest.

The uprising was inspired by the revolutions and calls for reform sweeping the Arab world, and activists and rights groups say most of those killed have been unarmed civilians. An aggressive new military offensive that began with Ramadan at the start of the month killed several hundred people in just one week.

The London-based observatory said authorities on Wednesday night detained opposition figure Hassan Zahra during a raid in a Damascus suburb. Mr. Zahra, a 67-year-old member of the Communist Action Front, has been detained at least once since the uprising began, it said.

International condemnation over the crackdown has been strong and is growing more forceful.

In Turkey, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu renewed calls Thursday for an end to the bloodshed and said Turkey would be closely watching developments there.

“Of course, it is difficult to expect this when tensions are so high, but our expectation is that measures are taken to prevent the loss of lives, for civilian losses to end. We will be monitoring closely.”

The Obama administration, which announced new sanctions Wednesday, is preparing for the first time to call explicitly for Mr. Assad to step down, officials have told the AP. The moves are a direct response to Mr. Assad’s decision to escalate the crackdown by sending the army into opposition hotbeds.

The new sanctions affect the state-owned Commercial Bank of Syria and its Lebanon-based subsidiary, the Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank, for what the U.S. says are their links to human rights abuses and to illegal weapons trade with North Korea.

Mobile phone company Syriatel was targeted because it is controlled by “one of the regime’s most corrupt insiders,” said David Cohen, the U.S. Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

The action freezes any assets the firms have in U.S. jurisdictions and bans Americans from doing business with them. But the sanctions may not have much immediate economic impact because the U.S. already severely limits trade and economic ties with Syria.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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