- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 8, 2011

BEIRUT | Thousands of elite troops led by President Bashar Assad’s brother converged Wednesday on a restive northern area, and neighboring villages called to warn that the convoys of tanks were approaching, a resident and a Syrian activist said.

Syrian forces have lost control of large areas of the northern province, a pro-government newspaper reported in a rare acknowledgment of cracks in the regime’s tight grip after weeks of protest calling for an end to its 40-year rule.

The separate reports raised the prospect of more bloodshed in Syria’s nationwide repression of the 11-week-old revolt. Turkey said Wednesday that it would open its border to Syrians fleeing violence.

In Jisr al-Shughour - where the government said “armed groups” killed 120 security forces and took over the town this week - a resident said nearby villages had opened their mosques, churches and schools to take in people who fled in terror. Many also crossed into Turkey from Idlib province, said the man, who would give only a nickname, Abu Nader, because he feared government reprisals.


Witnesses in nearby villages called to tell people in Jisr al-Shughour that tanks were approaching, Abu Nader said.

The pro-government newspaper Al-Watan said gunmen had set up booby traps and ambushes in small villages to thwart incoming troops and that they were hiding in forests and caves.

Mustafa Osso, a human rights worker, said witnesses told him that thousands of troops were moving toward the city of Idlib.

He said many of the forces were from the army’s 4th Division, commanded by Mr. Assad’s younger brother, Lt. Col. Maher Assad. Col. Assad also commands the Republican Guard, whose main job is to protect the regime, and is thought to have played a key role in suppressing the protests.

“The number of soldiers is in the thousands,” Mr. Osso said. He speculated that the government planned a “decisive battle.”

Al-Watan, the pro-government newspaper, said the Syrian army was launching a “very delicate” operation designed to avoid casualties in Jisr al-Shughour. Al-Watan said some people were being held captive by armed groups that control some areas in Jisr al-Shughour and a large area of Idlib.

There was no way to independently confirm the reports from Syria, which severely restricts local media and has expelled foreign journalists from the country. The government routinely blames armed gangs and religious extremists for the violence.

Activists reported fighting in Jisr al-Shughour between loyalist troops and defectors who no longer wanted to continue the crackdown on protesters seeking Mr. Assad’s ouster. Activists say more than 1,300 Syrians, most of them civilians, have died since the start of the nationwide uprising.