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Syrian activists: Clashes near Turkish border

- Associated Press - Friday, March 23, 2012

BEIRUT — Syrian government forces fired machine guns and mortar rounds Friday in fierce clashes with rebel army defectors in a town near the Turkish border, a Syrian activist group reported, as a European Union official said the wife of Syria's president will be hit with a travel ban and have her assets in the EU frozen.

The EU official said a total of four members of President Bashar Assad's family, along with eight government ministers, will be targeted in the latest round of sanctions aimed at stopping the violent crackdown on the Syrian opposition. He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a decision that will be taken later Friday by EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels.

Asma Assad has British citizenship and the official said that probably meant she could not be banned from travel to the U.K.

International condemnation of Assad's regime and high-level diplomacy have failed to ease the year-old Syria conflict, which the U.N. says has killed more than 8,000 people.

Diplomatic pressure appears to be mounting with even one of Damascus' most steadfast allies, Russia, calling on Assad to pull his troops out of Syrian cities.

The regime however is pressing on with several offensives throughout the country, including in northern areas close to the rebels' main supply bases in Turkey.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the clashes in the town of Azaz in the northern province of Aleppo have left at least three soldiers and one defector dead. The Observatory, which has a network of activists around Syria, said military helicopters were seen flying over the town, eight kilometers (five miles) from the Turkish border.

The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said troops were shelling residential areas in Azaz with heavy machinegun fire and mortar rounds.

The Observatory also reported that 24 mortar rounds fell Friday morning in several neighborhoods in the central city of Homs — Bab Dreib, Safsaf and Warsheh. They shells caused damage but it was not clear if there were casualties, it said.

Homs has been the scene of some of the heaviest fighting in the uprising. Government forces crushed a rebel stronghold in Baba Amr neighborhood on March 1 but appear to be facing continued resistance from other parts of the city.

Amateur videos posted online by activists on Friday showed what they said were Soviet-designed T-72 battle tanks driving through streets in the central city of Hama. The video was taken on Tuesday, according to the activist filming the tanks. The authenticity of the video could not be independently verified.

On Thursday, senior Russian lawmaker Mikhail Margelov, the Kremlin-connected chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament, said Assad must take the first step toward settling his country's yearlong conflict by pulling his forces out of cities and allowing humanitarian assistance

Margelov's comments indicated Moscow's increasing impatience with Assad and its eagerness to raise pressure on an old ally. Russia has been one of Assad's strongest supporters since the crisis began.

Western countries have been pushing for Security Council action for months, but Russia and China have twice vetoed resolutions that criticized the regime.

On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement calling for a cease-fire to allow for dialogue between all sides on a political solution. Assad's government played down the statement, saying Damascus is under no threats or ultimatums.

The statement endorsed a six-point plan by joint U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, which includes a cease-fire by Syrian forces, a daily two-hour halt to fighting to evacuate injured people and provide humanitarian aid and inclusive talks about a political solution.

The presidential statement becomes part of the council's permanent record but is not legally binding.

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