Syrian forces head to the rebellious north

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BEIRUT (AP) — Convoys of Syrian tanks and elite troops led by President Bashar Assad’s brother were heading Wednesday to a restive northern area where soldiers reportedly joined an anti-government uprising, a Syrian activist said, citing witnesses.

Syrian forces have lost control of large areas of Idlib province, a pro-government newspaper reported, in a rare acknowledgement of cracks in the regime’s tight grip. The paper said gunmen had set up booby traps and ambushes in small villages to thwart incoming troops and were sheltering in forests and caves.

The separate reports by the pro-government paper Al-Watan and Mustafa Osso, a human rights worker, raised the prospect of another bout of bloodshed in Syria‘s nationwide crackdown on the revolt against the Assad family’s 40-year rule. The region borders Turkey, which said Wednesday it would open the frontier to Syrians fleeing violence.

Mr. Osso, who is in Syria, said witnesses told him that thousands of troops were on the move toward Idlib, near the Turkish border, in one of the biggest military deployments since the 11-week uprising began.

He said many of the troops were from the army’s 4th Division, which is commanded by Mr. Assad’s younger brother, Maher. Mr. Osso said they were converging on Idlib from Damascus and its suburbs, the central province of Homs and the northern province of Aleppo.

“The number of soldiers is in the thousands,” Mr. Osso said. He predicted an imminent assault and speculated that the government considers the operation to be 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, where the government acknowledged 120 troop deaths at the hands of “armed groups.” 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 recent violence.

Activists earlier 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.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain and France would offer a resolution at the United Nations condemning the crackdown.

“If anyone votes against that resolution or tries to veto it, that should be on their conscience,” Mr. Cameron said.

Jisr al-Shughour lies 12 miles from the Turkish border. On Wednesday, Turkey’s state-run news agency said 122 Syrian refugees who fled the recent fighting had crossed into Turkey.

The Anatolia news agency said the group crossed close to the village of Karbeyazi near the border town of Altinozu on Wednesday.

With the new arrivals, the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey has reached about 350. Authorities said more than 30 other Syrians were being treated at Turkish hospitals for wounds they suffered in clashes in northern Syria. They said one has died.

Ankara has said it is prepared to deal with a mass influx of Syrian refugees, though the frontier is relatively quiet for now.

“It is out of the question for us to close the border crossings. We are watching the situation with great concern,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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