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Intense shooting in central Syrian city

- Associated Press - Thursday, July 21, 2011

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian security forces swept through neighborhoods in a restive central city on Thursday, firing machine guns and pulling people from their homes in a series of arrests, activists and residents said.

Smoke billowed from at least one area in Homs, which has experienced some of the most intense and sustained violence in recent days as President Bashar Assad's regime seeks to stamp out a more than 4-month-old popular uprising against him.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said tanks closed in on neighborhoods including Bab Dreib and Bab Sbaa, where the main raids were taking place.

He said that conditions in Bab Sbaa, near the city center, are "miserable" and that at least one home was burned and telecommunications had been cut in parts of the city. He said residents reported "a wide wave of arrests," with people being taken from their homes, but he could not give an exact figure.

Up to 50 people have been killed in Homs since the latest crackdown and sectarian violence began Saturday, according to activists and witnesses.

The regime has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted media coverage, making it nearly impossible to independently verify events on the ground or casualty figures.

A resident in the city said mosques issued calls via loudspeakers for people to aid Bab Sbaa and urged people to donate blood in hospitals. The resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals, said Bab Sbaa had been subjected to heavy machine-gun fire since 4 a.m.

"I can see smoke billowing from the neighborhood," the man told the Associated Press by telephone as heavy gunfire could be heard in the background. "We cannot leave our homes."

Bab Sbaa, a predominantly Sunni Muslim neighborhood with some Christians, has been the site of massive protests calling for the downfall of Mr. Assad's regime.

Opposition figures have accused Mr. Assad's minority Alawite regime of trying to stir up trouble with the Sunni majority to blunt the growing enthusiasm for the uprising.

Syria has come under withering international criticism and sanctions for its crackdown, which activists say has killed some 1,600 people, most of them unarmed protesters.

The Local Coordination Committees, which help organize and document the protests in Syria, said troops were bombarding residential streets in Bab Sbaa with tanks and machine guns.

The LCC said that casualties occurred in the raids but that the gunfire was too intense for people to collect the victims from the streets. It also said that some army soldiers defected and were shooting back at troops firing at civilian areas.

The pro-government Al-Watan daily claimed the situation in Homs is calm despite cracks of gunfire heard in some streets in the city. It said security forces are conducting "qualitative and delicate" operations to track down armed men who are hiding in crowded areas to avoid the army and security personnel.

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