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Citing contacts inside Syria, Rami Abdul-Rahman, the London-based head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said more than 10,000 soldiers were involved.

Syria sharply restricts local media and has expelled foreign reporters, making it virtually impossible to independently verify reports about the uprising. The invitation to an AP reporter to accompany troops to Jisr al-Shughour appeared to reflect a Syrian government effort to counter criticism and prove the existence of armed gangs.

“Now we feel safe,” said Walida Sheikho, a 50-year-old woman in the village of Foro, near Jisr al-Shughour.

She and other residents offered food, water and juice to the Syrian troops and said they had appealed for help from the army.

Jisr al-Shughour is a predominantly Sunni town with some Alawite and Christian villages nearby. Most Syrians are Sunni Muslim, but Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

In Sirmaniyeh, a nearby village, journalists with the Syrian military saw a parked army bus, its front windshield smashed by gunfire. The army said the bus was ambushed early Friday, and that driver escaped unhurt after a bullet struck his protective vest.

Journalists were also shown eight grenades on a roadside in Ziara, another village in the area.

State television said armed groups torched crops and wheat fields around Jisr al-Shughour as the army approached.

A man in the town blamed security forces for the crop-burning. He said the few remaining residents were collecting tires to burn in an attempt to try to block the army advance. Speaking by phone, he told an AP reporter in Beirut that about 40 tanks rolled into a village five miles (12 kilometers) from Jisr al-Shughour. He and other activists reported hearing bursts of machine gun fire.

Human rights groups say the crackdown has killed more than 1,300 people, most of them unarmed civilians. The government says a total of 500 security forces have also been killed.

In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross appealed to Syria to grant access to the wounded and people held after clashes with security forces.

Jakob Kellenberger, the ICRC president, said the group hasn’t been allowed “meaningful access.”

Activists said demonstrators gathered after Friday prayers across Syria, including in northern Aleppo, the central cities of Homs and Hama, Bukamal in the east, and suburbs of Damascus.

Activists said security forces opened fire on protesters near the Sheikh Jaber mosque in the Damascus suburb of Qaboun, killing three people and wounding several others. One activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said there were snipers on rooftops and security checkpoints outside local mosques.

Around 200 people, mostly women and children, staged an anti-Assad protest at the camp in Altinozu, Turkey, one of three set up by the Turkish government.

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